World News

Canceling of Trump-Kim Meeting Upends Asia but Could Help China

Posted May 24, 2018 3:44 p.m. EDT
Updated May 24, 2018 3:49 p.m. EDT

BEIJING — President Donald Trump’s decision Thursday to cancel his planned summit meeting with Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader, will disappoint some allies in Asia, hearten others — and perhaps put China in the strongest position of all.

Trump’s announcement put the brakes on disarmament negotiations that had been hurtling ahead at an unprecedented pace. Instead of a meeting with Kim, Trump vowed that “our very strong sanctions, by far the strongest in history, and maximum pressure campaign will continue.”

But applying that pressure depends in large part on cooperation from China, which may now be able to use any delays in negotiations with North Korea to its advantage in trade talks with the United States.

Much will depend, of course, on how North Korea reacts to Trump’s decision to pull out of the talks. After a year of breakthrough missile launches and a sixth nuclear test, Kim abruptly put his nation on a path toward peace — suspending weapons tests, releasing American prisoners and, just hours before Trump’s announcement, destroying its nuclear test site.

It is unclear how Trump’s withdrawal from the meeting with Kim will affect the internal politics of North Korea’s secretive regime. If Kim feels compelled to resume weapons tests and his drive to demonstrate that he can strike the United States with a nuclear warhead, the region will be on edge once again.

But if he refrains, Kim may have already earned enough goodwill among his neighbors — especially China, his country’s main trading partner — to see some softening of the economic sanctions against his isolated nation, without agreeing to give up his nuclear arsenal.

“Trump walking away from the summit lets North Korea meet all its objectives: public recognition, lighter sanctions, damage to U.S. alliances and continued nuclear advancement,” said Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.

South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, helped broker the planned meeting between Kim and Trump. Now he is likely to be damaged politically if the talks are entirely derailed.

“Moon Jae-in’s people must be panic-stricken by now because they have invested so much in the Trump-Kim summit,” said Lee Byong-chul, a senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul. “At home, they will face a gleeful political opposition who will ridicule them for being so naive.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, on the other hand, may be breathing a sigh of relief. Officials in Tokyo were worried that the talks were moving too quickly, without enough Japanese involvement, and could result in a deal that would benefit the United States but leave Japan vulnerable to North Korea’s arsenal.

President Xi Jinping of China has also appeared nervous about the pace of the talks and the prospect of Kim’s getting too close to the Americans, particularly given his independent streak and past willingness to buck China.

But the cancellation of the meeting allows Xi to use his influence with North Korea — including his ability to tighten or weaken enforcement of economic sanctions against it — as leverage while Beijing negotiates a trade deal with Washington.

“It is in Xi’s interest not only to delay but to have the summit pending for as long as possible,” said James Mann, author of “The China Fantasy.”

“The prospect of a deal without a deal itself gives China leverage over the U.S., especially on trade,” he added.

Cheng Xiaohe, a North Korea expert at Renmin University in Beijing, described Trump’s decision as “bad news,” but said it might allow Xi to act as a mediator. “The cancellation may offer China an opportunity to do something to salvage the aborted meeting,” he said.

Trump appears to suspect that Xi had something to do with North Korea’s taking a harder line against abandoning its nuclear weapons in recent days.

In his letter to Kim canceling the summit meeting, Trump cited “tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement.” On Thursday, one top North Korean official warned that the United States must choose between encountering North Korea in a meeting room or in a “nuclear-to-nuclear showdown.”

This week Trump noted that North Korea had changed its tone toward the United States after a surprise meeting between Kim and Xi in the Chinese port city of Dalian two weeks ago. And he suggested that the Chinese president had egged on the younger and less experienced Kim in taking a harder line, possibly to strengthen China’s hand in trade talks with the United States.

“There was a different attitude by the North Korean folks after that meeting,” Trump said Tuesday as he met with Moon to discuss strategy toward the North. “I can’t say that I’m happy about it.”

Trump also called Xi a “world-class poker player,” a backhanded compliment for a world leader whom Trump has called a friend and a partner in enforcing international sanctions on the North over its nuclear weapons program.

But analysts also said they thought Trump was misreading the situation, and that the tougher stance from North Korea probably stemmed more from internal concerns about its own survival than from interference by Xi. The confusion and finger-pointing show how complex the situation is, with numerous actors negotiating in multiple channels with myriad and sometimes overlapping agendas.

While it is not known what the North Korean and Chinese leaders discussed during their meeting in Dalian, Xi was probably pushing his own agenda, including economic cooperation, while advising Kim on dealing with Trump, analysts said.

Chinese analysts say China has much to gain from a peace deal that would prevent a potentially disastrous conflict with the United States on its border, and that in the long run might result in the removal of U.S. troops from South Korea.

Many American analysts agreed, saying the North’s recent harsher tone reflected the Kim regime’s concerns about its own preservation, and its bedrock belief that it needs to keep some form of a nuclear arsenal.

“Blaming the Chinese for the change in tone from North Korea strikes me as trying to find a Chinese scapegoat for a summit failure,” said Douglas H. Paal, a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

However, some American analysts said China had an interest in at least slowing down any rapprochement between the United States and North Korea.

The United States, by pressuring China on trade at the same time it is relying on Beijing to apply tough sanctions against North Korea, has created an opening for Xi to force the Americans to make concessions on economic issues. Since the Dalian meeting, Chinese officials have been telling foreign diplomats that Xi and Kim discussed how the young leader should deal with Trump.

However, just after the Dalian meeting, North Korea seemed to back away from its earlier statement that it would consider complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. During a trip to Pyongyang days later, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hoped to get additional pledges from the North on scrapping its nuclear program but did not.

Soon after Pompeo left Pyongyang, North Korea kicked off its tirade against Washington, saying it would call off the expected June 12 summit meeting if the Trump administration insisted on “unilateral nuclear abandonment.”

Significantly, the threat was issued by the North’s chief nuclear negotiator, Kim Kye Kwan, a veteran of the North’s foreign ministry who is well known to Washington.

His statement took specific aim at John R. Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, who had said on a Sunday television show that North Korea needed to dispose of its nuclear weapons program quickly, following what he called the model of Libya under Moammar Gadhafi.

Chinese analysts say North Korea’s elite see Libya, and Gadhafi’s inability to defend himself when Western powers backed the popular uprising that toppled him, as a warning not to give up nuclear weapons. They said it was Bolton’s impolitic comments, and not behind-the-scenes Chinese machinations, that hardened North Korean attitudes.

“Subverting the summit would bring even bigger uncertainties to China,” said Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing.

Shi said China would benefit from easing tensions on the peninsula, with a lifting of sanctions allowing a resumption of trade along its shared border with the North. In fact, he said Xi probably used the Dalian meeting to entice Kim with expanded economic ties to help Kim fulfill his promise to his own people to fix the North’s dilapidated economy.

Trump himself has often linked North Korea and trade, telling the Chinese that he would give them a better deal on the latter if they cooperated on North Korea, said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Some analysts said this was apparent in the Trump administration’s handling of ZTE, the Chinese telecommunications equipment company. The United States barred it from buying U.S.-made parts as punishment for its dealings with North Korea and Iran, threatening the company’s survival.

The United States then eased off that punishment after Trump said on social media that he was working with Xi to give ZTE “a way to get back into business, fast.”

“There was a belated recognition that the trade agenda was complicating Trump’s ability to achieve progress on his top priority of North Korea,” said Ryan Hass, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who was a member of President Barack Obama’s National Security Council.

He said the Trump administration was gambling that showing flexibility on trade would persuade Beijing to cooperate on North Korea.

“Beijing set the price for doing so as action on ZTE and steps to ease trade tensions,” Hass said. “The Trump administration accepted the terms.”

“Time will tell if that bet pays off,” he said.