BEIJING – Embedded within Chinese leaders’ convoluted yet vague statements to Washington about North Korea is a simple message: Talk with Pyongyang.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s weekend discussions with officials in Beijing offered up the usual encouraging but familiarly noncommittal language on North Korea, emphasizing Beijing’s desire to strike a balance between easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula while not appearing to side against its prickly communist ally Pyongyang.
But while neither side offered details of their exchanges, Beijing is communicating its strong desire for some form of direct contact between the U.S. and North Korea as a means of defusing the ongoing crisis over North Korea’s nuclear threats that have prompted a massive show of force by the U.S. and South Korea.
“North Korea wants to talk, so why not talk?” said Shen Dingli, a regional security expert and director of the Center for American Studies at Shanghai’s Fudan University.
The question for China, Shen said, is how to make such discussions come about, adding that China is unlikely to make such calls too explicit for fear of putting either side in an embarrassing quandary.
Highlighting the difficulties of getting North Korea to talk with the U.S., the North rebuffed last week’s proposal by Seoul to resolve the tensions through dialogue. North Korea dismissed the proposal as a “crafty trick” to disguise what Pyongyang calls the South’s hostility, and said it won’t talk unless Seoul abandons its confrontational posture.
Chinese media reports on Kerry’s Saturday talks largely downplayed North Korea, and the Foreign Ministry’s official statements were predictably blurry. In its account of his meeting with Kerry, the ministry quoted Premier Li Keqiang as referring only to “those who stir up trouble on the peninsula only harm their own interests, like moving a stone only to drop it on one’s own foot.”
That was a near echo of President Xi Jinping’s own comment in a speech earlier this month that “no one should be allowed to throw the region, or even the whole world, into chaos for selfish gains” – seen as much as a rebuke to the U.S. and its allies as to North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong Un.
The ministry’s account of Kerry’s meeting with Xi didn’t mention the Korean Peninsula even obliquely.
While China has grown more critical of North Korea since the latter’s third nuclear test in February, Beijing remains highly wary of pushing the hardline communist regime too far. China says it wants a Korean Peninsula free from nuclear weapons, but that all sides must play a role in that.
The stakes are high for China, with a potential conflict threatening its economic development and stability in the northeast along its long, meandering border with North Korea. Beijing abhors the prospect of a pro-U.S. unified Korean state on its border as well as internal North Korean conflict that could spark an outflow of refugees.
China was already displeased by Kim’s lack of outreach and lack of concern for Beijing’s interests, and signed on to tighter U.N. sanctions following the North’s latest nuclear test in February. It’s also stepped up customs checks along their border, slowed some deliveries of equipment to the North and cracked down on suspect financial transactions by North Korean banks.
That’s had little apparent effect on Kim’s behavior, and he seems emboldened by China’s lack of a forceful response to past crises and Pyongyang’s perceptions of China’s fear of a collapse of the regime. While North Korea’s population is starving and impoverished, the leadership gets by on Chinese food and fuel, along with growing investment, and imports of North Korean iron ore and other raw materials.
Despite that, it’s not clear what, if any, further pressure China is willing to exert, and if Xi, Li or others offered any further commitments, neither side was saying.
“Theoretically, there is more that China can do, but we’re very worried that doing so could stimulate Kim to do even more dangerous things,” said Shi Yinhong, an international relations expert at Renmin University in Beijing.
“Be prudent, don’t go too far” is China’s message to Washington and South Korea, Shi said.
While direct Washington-Pyongyang communication may offer a start, the ultimate key to easing tensions long-term lies in involving the other regional players, said Zhang Liangui, a researcher with the ruling Communist Party’s main research and training institute in Beijing.
That would mark a return to Beijing’s preferred format of six-nation talks involving the two Koreas, China, the U.S., Japan and Russia, a process stalemated since 2009 over how to ensure North Korean compliance with denuclearization measures. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi again communicated Beijing’s preference for the Chinese-hosted talks in his Saturday meeting with Kerry.
“This is not an issue for the two sides only,” said Zhang, who is close to the Chinese leadership but said he had no direct knowledge of Kerry’s meetings. “It concerns the entire region, so all the countries involved should take part.”
China is not the only one suggesting a phone conversation between the sides. Flamboyant former NBA player Dennis Rodman made the same point following a bizarre trip to Pyongyang and meetings with Kim in March.
Both Kim and President Barack Obama love basketball “and there is even more they could talk about if Obama would just pick up the phone and call him,” Rodman said following the trip.