Direct talks with N. Korea

The triangular relationship between the United States, North Korea and China is taking some interesting turns.

Not too long ago, candidate Trump called North Korea the “greatest immediate threat” to the United States. In his Oval Office interview with Bloomberg News on May 1, however, the U.S. president declared that he was open to meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “under the right circumstances.”

“If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely, I would be honored to do it,” said President Trump, “most political people would never say that, but I am telling you under the right circumstances I would meet with him. We have breaking news.”

As the United States is opening the door to North Korea, the “blood-cemented” relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang is deteriorating and the two traditional allies are beginning to lash out at each other.

In a pointed criticism of China, the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) declared on May 3, “A string of absurd and reckless remarks are now heard from China every day only to render the present bad situation tenser. China must stop testing the boundaries of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). China had better ponder over the grave consequences to be entailed by its reckless act of chopping down the pillar of the DPRK-China relations … DPRK will never beg for the maintenance of friendship with China.”

Immediately and angrily, China’s state media responded to KCNA’s blunt criticism.

“Cracks in the alliance between North Korea and China widened,” reports Kyung-Jin Shin of South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo (The Central Times), “while Pyongyang labeled its longtime ally a traitor, China is wondering aloud about scrapping the 1961 friendship treaty.”

China’s Global Times, writes Shin, “a sister newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily, expressed skepticism on May 4 about the need to maintain the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty. In an editorial, the newspaper said the treaty was intended to promote bilateral cooperation and friendship as well as regional peace and security, and the North’s nuclear development goes against those principles. The treaty, signed in 1961, was automatically extended in 1981 and 2001. Since 2001, the conflicts between Pyongyang and Beijing over the North’s nuclear arms program grew, and voices grew inside and out of China to question the usefulness of the treaty.”

China’s People’s Daily then warned that North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs have “put the whole region into dire peril” and declared that China “is able to strike back at any side that crosses the red line.” Pyongyang’s response: It is China that has “crossed the red line.”

Viewing from Beijing, Pyongyang’s missiles are not yet able to reach the continental United States, but China’s entire Northeast region is well within range. From Pyongyang’s perspective, however, China is no longer an ally that can be trusted and North Korea can no longer rely on Chinese economic aid and diplomatic support for its very survival.

In light of the changes in the triangular relationship between North Korea, China, and the United States, President Trump’s “all options are on the table” North Korea approach — ranging from military action to direct talks — might be working effectively to rein in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

“This is because,” writes Eric Li of the Aspen Institute, “the United States appears to be shifting away from a policy under the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama that aimed for both denuclearization and regime change. The first goal is strategic, and the second is largely ideological. And the threat of regime change is the very reason the regime wants a nuclear deterrent.”

“By telling the North Korean leader that he is a ‘smart cookie’ and he would be ‘honored’ to talk to him,” says Yun Sun at the Stimson Center, “I sense a difference in the U.S. policy goals coming to North Korea … President Trump may be speaking highly of Kim to signal his goal is not regime change, only neutralizing the nuclear threat.”

Xiaoxiong Yi is director of Marietta College’s China Program.