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Chinese leader hints at bigger role in NK issues

Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday voiced support for North Korea and its approach to denuclearization, fanning speculation that Beijing will take a more direct hand in North Korean issues.

In an op-ed piece published in North Korea’s official newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, Wednesday -- a day before he begins a state visit to North Korea -- Xi highlighted China’s support for Pyongyang. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un pose during their meeting in Beijing in January. Yonhap
Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un pose during their meeting in Beijing in January. Yonhap

“We will actively contribute to peace and security, development and prosperity of the region by jointly driving for progress in dialogue and negotiations regarding Korean Peninsula issues and strengthen communication and mediation with North Korea and the relevant parties,” Xi wrote.

Xi is set to make a two-day state visit to North Korea on Thursday, during which time he is set to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

It will be Xi’s first visit to North Korea as president, as well as the first by any Chinese president in 14 years. The upcoming summit will be the fifth between Kim and Xi.

In the op-ed piece, Xi went on to say that China would play a role in “pioneering a new situation” in regional peace and security, stressing China’s support for North Korea’s policies on related matters.

“China supports North Korea maintaining the right course of resolving Korean Peninsula issues politically, and supports resolving North Korea’s reasonable interests through dialogue,” Xi wrote, adding that strategic communications between China and North Korea would be strengthened and China-North Korea relations would gain even greater significance.

The timing of the article has fueled speculation that Beijing seeks to play a bigger role in the denuclearization issue and to exert influence over the US-North Korea dialogue.

The G20 Summit is less than two weeks away, and Xi is set to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. A US-China summit is also expected on the sidelines of the event. US President Donald Trump is also set to visit Seoul and meet with Moon at the end of the month.

Xi’s trip to North Korea has dampened hopes of an inter-Korean summit before the Moon-Trump summit, prompting criticism that the Moon administration’s role in North Korean issues has diminished.

During his recent trip to northern Europe, Moon said he hoped to meet Kim before meeting Trump, and revealed that Kim’s letter to Trump contained “interesting elements.”

Regardless of their impact on inter-Korean dialogue, experts say, developments involving China will have a positive effect on denuclearization talks.

According to Konyang University professor emeritus Kim Tae-woo, former head of the Korea Institute for National Unification, both Trump and Kim will welcome the resumption of dialogue and Xi has provided the spark for reviving the talks.

Kim Tae-woo said that for Trump, denuclearization talks would highlight his diplomatic achievements in the runup to the US presidential election in 2020, while the North could attain a way out of its economic difficulties.

However, Kim warned that Xi’s op-ed piece sends another message.

“There is (the message) that China will support North Korea in the environment of intensifying new cold war, that (China) will support the survival of the North Korean regime,” he said, adding that Beijing, facing pressure from the US and its allies in the Indo-Pacific region, is unlikely to allow its influence on Pyongyang to be weakened.

By Choi He-suk (