Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist.
The denuclearization agreement reached by U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un is in trouble. The deal that came together at their Singapore meeting in June was always vague, with no common understanding as to what is meant by complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula or the time frame in which this should be achieved.
Much depends on what transpires over the next few weeks, as key figures fly – or don’t fly – to Pyongyang.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was scheduled to travel to Pyongyang on Sunday, but that trip was suddenly cancelled on Friday by Mr. Trump, who tweeted that he had asked Mr. Pompeo “not to go to North Korea, at this time, because I feel we are not making sufficient progress with respect to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” It was Mr. Trump’s first admission that talks with North Korea were not going well.
The same day, Mr. Trump tweeted his “warmest regards and respect to Chairman Kim and I look forward to seeing him soon.” Mr. Trump, apparently, doesn’t blame Mr. Kim for the lack of progress. Then who, in his mind, is responsible? The answer is China.
“Because of our much tougher Trading stance with China, I do not believe they are helping with the process of denuclearization as they once were,” Mr. Trump also tweeted on Friday. He said the Pompeo trip to Pyongyang would be “most likely after our Trading relationship with China is resolved.”
So, in Mr. Trump’s mind, the two issues are linked and the trade issue needs to be resolved first. Cancellation of the Pompeo trip now gives more responsibility – and opportunity – to two other leaders who are expected to visit Pyongyang next month.
Chinese President Xi Jinping will reportedly take part in ceremonies to mark the 70th anniversary of North Korea’s founding on Sept. 9. Mr. Xi has not visited Pyongyang since he became China’s leader in 2012; the last time a Chinese president visited North Korea was in 2005. Mr. Xi is pushing for an end-of-war declaration and, according to South Korean legislators briefed last week by Zhang Yesui, chair of the foreign affairs committee of China’s National People’s Congress, China has made a proposal to the United States about a four-party end-of-war declaration involving South Korea, North Korea, the U.S. and China.
China claims that as a signatory of the armistice agreement, it should play a role in any peace declaration. This sounds simple, but China didn’t really sign the armistice. It was signed by General Nam Il, on behalf of the “Korea People’s Army and the Chinese People’s Volunteers.”
Mao Zedong created the fiction that the troops sent to Korea were “volunteers.” This ploy was an attempt to not give the United States an excuse to attack the newly established People’s Republic of China. Now, Beijing insists it must have a seat at the table because the troops were agents of the Chinese state. No one dares challenge China now when it says that its troops fought in Korea and that it was a signatory of the armistice accord. China has succeeded in having its cake and eating it too.
Another key visitor to Pyongyang, possibly the most important, will be South Korean President Moon Jae-in. He, too, supports a peace declaration. In fact, in the Moon-Kim accord reached on April 27 – the Panmunjom Declaration – the two Koreas agreed that such a declaration should be issued this year. However, the United States is unenthusiastic, since a peace declaration has ramifications for the American military bases in South Korea, the Washington-Seoul alliance and the U.S. military presence in East Asia.
Mr. Moon’s visit will provide a good opportunity to clarify whether Pyongyang is, indeed, willing to denuclearize and, as a first step, to provide a declaration of its nuclear program, including how many nuclear weapons it has and where they are kept.
After all, the Trump-Kim agreement reaffirmed what the Panmunjom Declaration said about “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” In that declaration, “South and North Korea shared the view that the measures being initiated by North Korea are very meaningful and crucial for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and agreed to carry out their respective roles and responsibilities in this regard.”
It would be perfectly appropriate for Mr. Moon to seek clarification on the North’s present and future measures to move toward denuclearization and seek a timetable regarding when denuclearization would be completed. Such a clarification would be a major step forward.