Two is company, three’s a crowd: North Korea, China and the United States
North Korea, also known as the ‘Hermit Kingdom’, is a country that for the better half of a century has faced diplomatic and economic isolation. Mention of the country usually carries a negative connotation as most one can say about them is the internment camps they operate and the highly oppressive regime. However, the election of Donald Trump has seen a remarkable shift in attitude with North Korea, significantly changing the way that China, North Korea and the US all interact with each other. So, how have things evolved?
Before answering this question, we must understand traditional US policy to North Korea. Every president until Trump, whether Democrat or Republican, toed the same line by exerting economic sanctions and heavy diplomatic pressure on the Koreans. In fact, to this day a sitting President has never been to North Korea. China-North Korea relations are a little more complicated than that. From the Chinese perspective, they share a close bond as there were countless Chinese soldiers that sacrificed themselves during the Korean War and since then Beijing has been the primary financial backer of North Korea. Despite this, the North views China in a different light. Their memory extends a bit further back to before 1895, when Korea was part of the Middle Kingdom until China lost the Korean territory to the Japanese following the Sino-Japanese War.
However, things have changed. Donald Trump has rebranded the US-North Korea relationship, being the first president to attempt détente with the leader of North Korea. The June 12thSummit held in Singapore was the first meeting ever between leaders of the United States and North Korea. They agreed to security guarantees, denuclearisation and a range of other historical precedents. Although China was not present at the meetings-much to their dismay- their influence was still felt. Perhaps most noticeably was the fact that Kim Jong-un used an Air China plane to get to Singapore. Even so, the influence that Beijing has on Pyongyang may not last a lot longer. In the modern day, China’s stance with North Korea has alternated between a geostrategic embrace of their regional neighbour or following suit with American-imposed sanctions and diplomatic isolation. The North has heavily depended on China for financial assistance and in return for they give unwavering loyalty and support. With Trumps détente, things are now changing.
First of all, the North’s rapprochement to the US means that China’s role as a mediator will become more and more irrelevant. Traditionally, China has been used to ‘bridge the gap’ between North Korea and the West, yet this won’t be needed if the US and North Korea get on better and better terms. This would not please China at all as losing influence over one of their closest partners within their own sphere of influence would deal a massive blow to them. It would make them look weak and unable to control a long-standing ally. Moreover, this perceived weakness would damage China’s legitimacy as regional enforcer, potentially affecting important issues such as the South China Sea dispute.
Naturally, Beijing has sought to have more of a say in the process and I believe they should, because the consequences of not doing so could be dire. China could sabotage any attempts at the peace process between North and South Korea by pushing the North away from denuclearisation, bringing very dangerous consequences. China could also use the current Sino-American trade war to hurt the United States, although I believe that the United States would have a greater ability to succeed in that situation. Fundamentally, China needs to be let in enough so that they feel like they are having a say in the process, but not so much that they can veto and change the face of it.
Ultimately, China’s role in the North and South Korea peace talks is an unwanted but essential one. It is impossible to ignore the regional superpower of the Far East on such an important issue, and so they must be given an important role. Nonetheless, China must recognize that the two Koreas have a strong sense of nationalism that would unite them a lot better than the current bond that Pyongyang and Beijing have. Lastly, should the two Koreas band together, they would certainly have the support of the United States, meaning that if Beijing went against them, they would indirectly be confronting the United States, a very undesirable scenario. No matter what happens, what is certain is that the political dynamics of the Far East are changing.