China's peacekeeping mission in Pyongyang and Washington's confrontation
North Korea’s foreign minister arrived in China on Thursday for the start of a hastily-arranged three-day official visit, as all sides gear up for a new round of leaders’ summits aimed at solving the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula. As The Independent writes in an article "North Korea’s top diplomat arrives in China as countries seek breakthrough in nuclear crisis", Ri Yong Ho’s trip was only announced on Tuesday, a few days after the Chinese president Xi Jinping held one-on-one talks with Donald Trump at the G20 summit in Argentina.
The timing of Mr Ri’s visit has led to speculation that North Korea’s top diplomat will be briefed on Mr Xi and Mr Trump’s discussions. The US president said after the meeting that Mr Xi would work with him “100 per cent” on North Korea. And while officials declined to comment in detail on the purpose of Mr Ri’s stay in Beijing, it is also expected to include the subject of a summit between Mr Xi and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang.
If confirmed, it would be the first visit of a Chinese president to North Korea in more than 13 years. Although Beijing is Pyongyang’s single most important ally and a lifeline for most imports and international travel, China has also taken part in international sanctions aimed to pressure North Korea into abandoning its nuclear and missile programmes.
Mr Ri will meet with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, on Friday, according to Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang. Mr Geng told a daily news briefing that the pair would have a “deep exchange of views” on their own countries’ relations, the Korean situation and other issues of mutual concern, without giving any further details.
Visits by Mr Ri have previously been linked to major leaders’ summits. In April, a similar round of talks in Beijing between Mr Ri and Mr Wang was used to iron out the details following an unexpected trip to the Chinese capital by Kim Jong-un himself. Those talks paved the way for later summits between North Korea and the US, and North Korea and South Korea, as China sought to ensure it wasn’t left out of the process of bringing North Korea into the international fold.
A visit by Mr Xi to North Korea would certainly be a major development in that process. The last Chinese president to visit North Korea was Xi's predecessor Hu Jintao, who met with Kim Jong-un’s father Kim Jong-il in 2005. South Korean official said last month that its president Moon Jae-in and Mr Xi discussed the prospect of the latter going to Pyongyang, during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Apec summit in Papua New Guinea.
Mr Moon said Mr Xi told him he would “make time” to visit North Korea next year, while continuing to play a constructive role in peace efforts. Professor Steve Tsang, director of SOAS’s China Institute in London, said a visit by Mr Xi to Pyongyang was possible, but only if he feels enough progress can be made to then buy some goodwill from Washington.
Denuclearisation is not China’s top priority when it comes to North Korea, Professor Tsang told The Independent, but if Mr Xi can “claim credit” for the easing of tensions then he will take the opportunity to do so. “Xi has not been keen to visit North Korea and has not yet done so,” he said. “A visit could be useful to Xi if he [can] use North Korea as a card to play in getting Trump to sustain the easing of the trade war with China.”
Meanwhile, Mr Trump has said he expects his next meeting with Mr Kim to take place in January or February. He will hope to rekindle the optimism generated by their summit in Singapore in June, when the two countries agreed to work together but made little in the way of concrete pledges.
They have since reached a complete stalemate, with the US demand North Korea produce a full inventory of its nuclear weapons and take other denuclearisation steps before winning significant outside rewards. North Korea, however, says it first wants sanctions relief, an official declaration of the end of the 1950-53 Korean War and other reciprocal military measures before it will move any further towards dismantling either its nuclear or missile bases.