Charles Burton is an associate professor of political science at Brock University and is a former counsellor at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing
The massive annual U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises that began on Sunday were delayed by a month this year, to avoid complicating any dialogue taking place around the Winter Olympics. North Korea normally condemns the manoeuvres as war-mongering, but has been quiet so far, perhaps because of its own latest move in the Korean peninsula chess game.
Last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made his first foreign trip since taking power in 2011, a surprise visit to Beijing to meet Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping. Since Mr. Kim reportedly shares his father’s fear of flying in foreign airspace, he went by train — one so heavily armoured it barely does 60 km/h. Fortunately for him, it also reportedly comes stocked with lobster, fine wines and young women who sing and dance to bide the time.
China’s Xinhua News Agency called the visit Mr. Kim’s “obligation to come to congratulate Xi in person” over his being re-elected Chinese President and Central Military Commission chairman. Mr. Xi thanked Mr. Kim for his “profound revolutionary friendship” and urged that, in future, they pay “frequent calls on each other, like relatives.”
Xinhua also reported that “the Korean Peninsula situation is developing rapidly, and many important changes have taken place, Kim said, adding that he felt he should come in time to inform Comrade General Secretary Xi Jinping in person the situation out of comradeship and moral responsibility.”
Judging by the body language in the Chinese and Korean media coverage, it was an awkward get together. The elephant in the room is U.S. President Donald Trump, and his bombshell remark that he would meet directly with Kim Jong-un, possibly as soon as next month.
It is not just China who is alarmed by this prospect. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has reportedly wangled a repeat invitation to Mar-a-Lago for April 18. Japan worries that Trump won’t buy North Korea’s expected demand to resolve the situation through synchronous reciprocal concessions – essentially a stalling tactic as the North hustles to refine its ability to prove beyond any doubt that that it can deliver nuclear warheads to American cities.
With uber-hawk John Bolton as incoming U.S. national security adviser, the Japanese fear is that if the Kim-Trump summit fails, the next step will be war. Mr. Bolton has said talks with North Korea are useless, and that protecting the U.S. from North Korean missiles is job one, regardless of collateral consequences for the South, Japan or, for that matter, China and Russia.
Beijing is concerned that talks between Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump will actually succeed. China’s original strategy with North Korea was evidently to let a massive crisis develop, engendered by Pyongyang’s weapons program. China would then resolve it by engineering regime change in the North – but only if the U.S. withdraws its troops from Japan and South Korea, and abandons its defence of Taiwan.
But, apparently, not everything has gone according to Beijing’s plan. Mr. Kim outflanked China by publicly arresting his secretly China-friendly scheming uncle in 2013, then, as hundreds watched, executed him and his cronies. Then Mr. Kim allegedly had his own estranged half-brother murdered in Malaysia, eliminating any possibility the sibling could ever become the face of a North Korean/Chinese puppet regime.
So, little wonder the smiles looked strained in official photos last week, and Xinhua characterized the talks as “candid.”
Of course, if Mr. Trump and Mr. Bolton find a way forward with Mr. Kim to denuclearize the Korean peninsula and set the stage for eventual Korean reunification, then Mr. Trump will have succeeded richly where presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama failed dismally. Mr. Trump pulling this off without Beijing’s help would debase China’s international prestige, while the U.S. reconsolidates its position in East Asia with no doubts about its future role there. Such a blow to China’s national pride would have major global consequences.
But it’s worth noting that the North Korean account of the Kim-Xi meeting made no mention of plans for the Supreme Leader to meet Mr. Trump, so the whole U.S. summit idea may just be a feint on Pyongyang’s part. And – knowing Mr. Trump’s temperament as we do – the cause of global stability may well be better served if a Kim-Trump mano- a-mano meeting never happened at all.
Nevertheless, the North Korean regime’s threat to world peace festers dangerously, and calls for meaningful action probably sooner than later.