The Hanoi summit between President Trump and North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un had been expected to deliver concrete results on the nuclear negotiations and/or US-North Korea bilateral relations. Widely speculated outcomes had included partial denuclearization by North Korea in exchange for partial easing of US economic sanctions on the country; a declaration of the end of the Korean War; and even an exchange of liaison offices between Washington and Pyongyang. The speculation was so vivid that many observers and analysts were startled when the summit ended abruptly without any concrete statement or agreement. China is no exception to that astonishment. Before the summit, Beijing was of the belief that an incomplete deal over the nuclear issue and some level of improvement of relations between the US and North Korea was in the offing. The level of improvement was expected to be limited, which would offer Beijing a sense of manageability of the path moving forward. However, when the Hanoi summit fell through, Beijing had to recalculate its implications and the best approach ahead.
The failure of the Hanoi summit was not necessarily bad news for China. It underscored the long-term nature of a solution to the North Korea issue vis-à-vis any abrupt change to the status quo, which offers China more venues and opportunities to exert control and influence over such a solution. In the Chinese view, the failure of the bilateral approach between the US and North Korea illustrates the indispensability of Beijing to a future solution, as a participant or even a guarantor to facilitate the birth of a deal given the deeply embedded distrust between the two. Beijing sees an opportunity both to enhance its leverage in the rising great power competition with the United States and to use North Korea as a catalyst for more cooperation with Washington. This tendency is particularly evident in President Xi Jinping’s two-day visit to North Korea.
This paper was originally published on the Asan Instiute’s “Open Forum” on July 1, 2019. Read the full paper here.