China Must Not Weaken Sanctions Against N.Korea
National Security Council chief Chung Eui-yong visited China on Monday to brief Chinese President Xi Jinping and other high-ranking officials on his recent meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump. He told Xi that China is playing a major role of getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons, and Xi vowed to "strengthen communication channels" with South Korea to deal with the nuclear standoff.
Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi said, "China commits itself to the efforts of realizing denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, maintaining peace and stability… and resolving things through dialogue and negotiation. The dramatic developments... seem to conform with efforts to bring the denuclearization drive for the Korean Peninsula back on track and also with the direction of the UN Security Council resolutions."
But China's stance is a bit more complicated than those comments suggest. China does not want North Korea to acquire nuclear weapons, but it also does not want the regime to change. If it had to choose between the two, it would opt for propping up the regime. From that perspective, China must be feeling both relief and trepidation over the rapid developments in inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korean relations. When the inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korean summits were announced, some pundits said China must be worried about becoming marginalized.
Beijing may also be worried about losing its close ties to its buffer state because it has taken a more active part in international sanctions against the North, while the U.S.' influence is increasing in the region. That raises fears that China could seek to ease the sanctions in order to maintain its influence on the North, and if that happens, efforts to get rid of North Korea's nuclear weapons will fail.
China wants North Korea to halt its nuclear and missile tests but also South Korea and the U.S. to halt their annual military exercises. China may not even want a complete dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear weapons program, but simply to contain the situation before it gets worse. That is why China supports solutions like reducing the number of North Korean nuclear warheads and halting the development of long-range missiles, without pushing Pyongyang to completely scrap its nuclear program. That would be totally unacceptable for Seoul, but such a scenario is more than possible if Beijing worries about Washington and Pyongyang getting too close. South Korea needs to make sure that China does not try to undermine the push to a full scrapping of the North's nuclear program.
Beijing must continue to back international sanctions if it wishes to end the nuclear standoff. It accounted for 91.3 percent of North Korea's trade in 2015 and 92.7 percent in 2016, so sanctions would be meaningless without it. North Korea only offered to sit down at the dialogue table because the international sanctions are biting and China finally got on board. Its trade with North Korea apparently fell to a fifth of the level in previous years.
Trump said China played a big role in getting North Korea to sit down for talks, and he was not just being polite. International sanctions against North Korea must be maintained until the complete, verifiable and irreversible scrapping of North Korea's nuclear weapons program is achieved. Even if Kim is now willing to scrap his nuclear weapons, he may get other ideas if international sanctions show signs of slacking. He must not be allowed to be swayed by such temptations.