- - Wednesday, June 8, 2016


Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent meeting with Ri Su-yong, North Korea’s vice chairman of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, could be the beginning of a new type of bilateral relationship between China and North Korea. Ri Su-yong, the former foreign minister who was the North’s ambassador to Switzerland when Kim Jong-un was a student in Switzerland, is a close confidant of the mercurial North Korean president. Mr. Ri delivered a message from Mr. Kim to Mr. Xi, with both then publicly expressing a willingness to improve bilateral relations and maintain peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.

Now that he has been in power for five years, it appears that China is prepared to invite the young North Korean leader to China for an official visit. This could happen as soon as August, during celebrations on the 95th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. Such a visit could be significant. It could signal North Korea’s willingness to discuss the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in return for security assurances, the lifting of sanctions and other deliverables. It could also, however, indicate that North Korea is confident in believing that China, the United States and others are now prepared to deal with North Korea as a nuclear weapons state and that denuclearization is no longer a realistic objective.

A few days before the visit of Mr. Ri to China, the North again launched its intermediate range Musudan missile. Although the launch failed, the timing, just prior to Mr. Ri’s trip to China, was interesting. Also interesting was Mr. Ri’s message to Song Tao, minister of the International Liaison Department of the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese organization responsible for maintaining good relations with its communist ally. According to North Korea’s official media, Mr. Ri told Mr. Song that North Korea will not give up its policy of “Byungjin” — pursuing economic and nuclear development.

Domestically, North Korea is on a roll: a fourth nuclear test in January, purported to be a hydrogen bomb, followed by a missile launch in February, a successful launch of a submarine-launched ballistic missile, and a series of static rocket engine tests. The Seventh Party Congress in March, the first such congress in 36 years, appointed Kim Jong-un party chairman, launched a five-year economic plan, and announced that a nuclear North Korea would not use its nuclear weapons unless its sovereignty was threatened.

Prior to Mr. Ri’s visit to China, many assumed a fifth nuclear test was imminent and the first test of the KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missile also was imminent. Whether the North moves forward with this test and launch is problematic now, given the likelihood that Mr. Kim may visit China this year at the invitation of Mr. Xi. Indeed, another nuclear test and missile launch would be another slap in the face to China.

China-North Korea relations are at a tipping point. There is the prospect that Mr. Xi will take a different tack in dealing with North Korea and its young leader. This would be a positive development if China is determined to convince Mr. Kim that he should cease his provocative actions, with an immediate halt to nuclear tests and missile launches, and return to negotiations focused on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. In return, China can assure Mr. Kim that North Korea will remain an ally of China and in addition to China’s fuel and food assistance, North Korea would receive security assurances, economic assistance and other deliverables from the United States and other countries.

If China is unable to convince Mr. Kim to return to denuclearization talks, and concedes to North Korea’s demand that it be accepted as a nuclear weapons state, this would have profound consequences for the region and the international community. To accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state, even if it commits to retaining only its current arsenal of nuclear weapons and pledges not to build any additional nuclear weapons, would be a profound national security failure. Other countries in the region, definitely to include South Korea and Japan, would then seek their own nuclear weapons, regardless of U.S. extended nuclear umbrella commitments. Moreover, the possibility of a nuclear North Korea proliferating nuclear weapons or fissile material, if there’s a need for foreign resources, also is a reality. Indeed, North Korea’s assistance to Syria in the construction of a nuclear reactor in Al Kibar, taken out by Israel in 2007, should not be forgotten.

Hopefully, a Kim Jong-un official visit to China to meet Xi Jinping will be the beginning of a North Korea that ceases its provocative actions and returns to negotiations for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Joseph R. DeTrani is president of the Daniel Morgan Academy and a former special envoy for the Six-Party Talks with North Korea. The views are the author’s and not the views of any government agency or department.

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