China’s foreign minister has headed to Pyongyang as Beijing tries to reassert itself as part of ongoing peace talks between North and South Korea.
China tries to flex its muscles in North Korea
For decades, China has been Pyongyang’s main ally and its bridge to the outside world, but it appears to be losing influence to the US, amid a thaw in relations between the North and South.
Last Friday, Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in committed to eliminating nuclear weapons and formally ending the seven-decade Korean War.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi arrived in Pyongyang on Wednesday in the first such visit since 2007, which also comes ahead of a planned summit between Kim and Donald Trump within the next two months.
“The Chinese want to ensure that they are at the table and have the means to influence the course of events on the peninsula,” Bonnie Glaser, a China specialist at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the South China Morning Post.
“Beijing is probably irritated that Kim has ignored China’s ‘freeze for freeze’ proposal,” Glaser said.
Wang first presented the “freeze for freeze” proposal in March last year, suggesting the US and South Korea stop large-scale joint military exercises in exchange for Pyongyang halting its nuclear program.
Beijing has long resented the 28,000 US troops in South Korea that have been carrying out annual military drills close to Chinese territory.
The Chinese government also issued strong protests last year against the deployment of the THAAD in South Korea, a US anti-missile defense system that can potentially be used to defend China’s own nuclear arsenal.
It is unknown what Kim has asked for to give up his nuclear weapons, but Seoul has said that US troops will be kept stationed in South Korea.
“Beijing’s perspective may be that Kim Jong-un should ask for more to denuclearize,” said Gregg Brazinsky, an expert on US-Asian relations at The George Washington University.
"China is probably concerned it is being sidelined by the Trump administration and by North Korea."
China has been able to exert unique influence on Pyongyang due to their economic ties and a decades-long alliance.
About 90% of North Korea’s foreign trade went through China in 2016, which sold essentials such as oil and rice to the isolated nation.
Pyongyang is indebted to the Chinese Communist Party for the hundreds of thousand of Chinese soldiers who died fighting for the North during the 1950-53 Korean War.
After the war ended in a ceasefire, China helped to rebuild the country by providing labor, material and technical aid.
But analysts say the young Kim may be trying to reduce its reliance on China, as he repairs the relationship with South Korea and the US.
“China is North Korea’s most important trading partner, but it is possible that North Korea wants to change that,” Brazinsky said. “It does not want to be completely dependent on China.”
The close relationship has already proved a risky one for Pyongyang.
North Korea’s trade volume has plunged by 90% since China stepped up enforcing the United Nations’ sanctions on Pyongyang in mid-2017.
Its economy will likely shrink by 2% to 3.5% this year if the penalties continue.