x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Uncertainty over China's influence on North Korea

Wen Jiabao's much-vaunted visit to celebrate the two countries' friendship may not lead to the revival of six-party talks, say some analysts.

China's premier, Wen Jiabao, left, hugs the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il upon his arrival in Pyongyang for talks yesterday.
China's premier, Wen Jiabao, left, hugs the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il upon his arrival in Pyongyang for talks yesterday.

BEIJING // Analysts are warning against hasty optimism after the visit of the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, to North Korea yesterday, saying it might not be the watershed moment that brings North Korea back to talks aimed at containing the country's nuclear drive. Mr Wen's three-day visit is officially to commemorate the China-North Korea friendship year, which also coincides with the 60th anniversary of the two countries' establishment of diplomatic ties. He was greeted by Kim Jong Il at the airport, China's state-controlled Xinhua news agency said yesterday in a dispatch from the capital of the reclusive country. Mr Wen is heading a high-ranking delegation that includes the foreign minister, Yang Jiechi; his top nuclear envoy, Wu Dawei; the head of the National Development and Reform Commission, China's top economic planning body; as well as senior officials in trade, culture, education and tourism. Yesterday afternoon, the two sides signed a series of agreements, according to Chinese state radio. Such visits usually coincide with a generous economic package to China's destitute ally. The North's official newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, said the visit "clearly illustrates the Communist Party and the government of China attach great importance to the friendship between the two countries", adding that its significance was commensurate with marking "a new chapter" in Sino-North Korean history. Analysts, however, widely see the visit as focused on diplomacy for reviving the suspended nuclear talks. Some believe that China, the most important ideological ally and also the key provider of economic aid to North Korea, would not send such a senior official unless it had some assurance from Pyongyang regarding the nuclear impasse. Hopes are already running high in some pockets of the diplomatic community. For example, South Korea's Yonhap news agency said Mr Kim may make an "important announcement" at the end of Mr Wen's visit, possibly a posture of rejoining the six-party talks. But many analysts say the outcome of the visit will likely be largely diplomatic gestures, lacking substance, and will fall short of a breakthrough. "China wants to push North Korea back to the six-party talks," said Andrei Lankov, an expert on the North at Kookmin University in Seoul. If North Korea indeed returns to the six-party talks table, Mr Lankov said, it would be "a major diplomatic success for China" as the host of the talks. But China will "probably not" meet with such success, he said. China is pressuring North Korea to return to the multilateral negotiation table as the host of the stalled six-nation consortium that also involves the United States, South Korea, Japan and Russia. Mr Kim is reported to have expressed a willingness to engage in "bilateral and multilateral talks", which China initially framed as a willingness to rejoin the discussions. However, there are now increasing doubts over whether the "multilateral" talks would automatically constitute "six-party talks." "If they had meant six-party talks, they probably would have said six-party talks. It's a vague formulation," said Bonnie Glaser, who analyses North Korea-China relations at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. The North walked away from the six-party talks after the UN Security Council condemned its long-range rocket launch in April. North Korea claimed it was a legitimate scientific endeavour, while the UN regarded it as a disguised test of a long-range missile. Since then, Pyongyang has repeatedly said it would not reenter the talks. In the days leading to Mr Wen's visit, North Korea's foreign ministry told a visiting US delegation it has no plans to return to the stalled talks, saying they are "over and done", Japan's Kyodo news agency reported on Friday, citing a source close to US-North Korea relations. Against such a backdrop, Chinese analysts are also expressing uncertainty about the resumption of the talks, even with Mr Wen's visit. "The six-party talks will not likely happen any time soon because North Korea wants to have bilateral talks with the US first," said Cui Zhiying, the director of the Korean Peninsula Research Centre at Tongji University in Shanghai. "The six-party talks are also a form of 'multilateral' talks. So, it might also be likely to resume," he said. Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korea studies at Seoul's Dongguk University, said: "If the six-party talks fall apart, that would show the limitation of China's much touted influence on North Korea." Analysts say North Korea was thus put in the position to save China's face by reciprocating the high-level Chinese delegation's visit by making a statement regarding the resolution of the nuclear standoff, including its consideration of rejoining the six-party talks. The importance North Korea attaches to Mr Wen's visit is significant. This is the first time for North Korea's paramount leader, Mr Kim, to greet a foreign country's premier, not a president, at the airport. But North Korea also needs to save its own face as well. After repeatedly saying it would "never" reenter six-party talks, it is inconvenient to return to the China-hosted six-party talks. "Hence, if they do restart the six-party talks, they will have to do it under some face-saving name," Mr Lankov said. North Korea did not like being cornered by the united front by the other five countries, including its staunch ally, China, after the North's defiant second nuclear testing this year, observers said. "North Korea also fears that its immediate return to the six-party talks will weaken the effect of the bilateral talks with the US as well," Mr Koh said. The United States recently shifted its policy and said it would be willing to sit down one-on-one with the North to resolve the long-lasting nuclear standoff. South Korea's Yonhap, the South Korean news agency, said Mr Kim was likely to reveal whether he wants six-party talks or a different type of negotiation, in his talks with Mr Wen today. foreign.desk@thenational.ae