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North Korea, China and the US together, and at odds

Dr. Mohamed A. Ramady

Published: Updated:

With the world reeling from President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and igniting fury and dismay from friends and foes alike, the US seems also bent on stoking an even bigger nuclear catastrophe on the Korean peninsula in the tit-for-tat spat with that country.

However, unlike the seemingly doomed and obscure so-called peace making shuttles by the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner in the Middle East, now possibly buried by the Trump announcement, there seems to be some glimmer of hope on the Korean issue with once again China showing a way out, helped by an unlikely source.

The United Nations Political Affairs chief, Jeffrey Feltman, embarked quietly on a four-day visit to North Korea, stopping first in Beijing on his way to meetings with senior North Korean officials, including Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho. What is the significance of this visit and who is Feltman?

It is noteworthy that the trip was in response to requests since September by North Korea for a meeting. Beyond the fact that this will be the first trip made to North Korea by a senior UN official since October of 2011, the choice of Feltman, who played an instrumental backchannel role during nuclear negotiations with Iran, as envoy to Pyongyang is also significant in and of itself.

Beijing is bracing for a period of issues with Washington in addition to bilateral trade, including Syria, Iran, South China Seas, and North Korea

Dr. Mohamed Ramady

That trip follows a personal call placed by President Donald Trump to President Xi Jinping of China the day after North Korea’s launch of its Hwasong-15 missile two weeks ago, a call that was polite, but firmly non-committal.

In the period since, Washington has ramped up military manoeuvres with Seoul, including its display of B-1 Bombers, while Xi decided to cut China’s oil exports to North Korea by one-third to put pressure on the North Koreans to start negotiations, something that the US had been asking China to do.

The day after the latest North Korean launch, President Donald Trump called China’s President Xi Jinping to ask that Beijing completely cut off all oil supplies to North Korea, ban North Korean ships from docking in China, and support UN Security Council proposals to impose additional sanctions on North Korea.

Hedging bets

The Chinese are hedging their bets. While President Xi stressed that China’s influence on North Korea is not as strong as widely assumed, he noted that China has already tried its best to prevent an outbreak of war on the Korean Peninsula and then reiterated China’s “unswerving” goals, namely the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, maintenance of the international nuclear non-proliferation regime, and the preservation of peace and stability in northeast Asia at large.

But China also holds some strategic cards to bring North Korea to the negotiating table as Xi did subsequently order a limited cut-off of oil supplies to North Korea of around half or one-third of oil supplies to the DPRK as the country is known, starting this month.

But there was also some Chinese words of reassurance to the belligerent and unpredictable North Korean leadership, a characteristic it seems they share with the US President, given the fiasco of the recent Jerusalem policy announcement.

ALSO READ: Trump administration announces sanctions against North Korea

However, not all is going well between the USA and China. In a separate but related development, Chinese officials are still fuming over the Trump Administration's imposition of an anti-dumping and countervailing duty case against Chinese aluminium producers.

While downplaying its impact on the Chinese economy, Beijing is bracing for a period of issues with Washington in addition to bilateral trade, including Syria, Iran, Taiwan, the South China Seas, and North Korea.

So enter Feltman. The UN envoy to North Korea, is the same UN representative who accompanied then Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon to Tehran in August of 2012.Coming fresh off his role as the US Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, his presence raised many an eyebrow at the time, eliciting denials by then spokeswoman for the State Department, Victoria Nuland, that he was carrying any messages from Washington to Tehran.

But the next year, Feltman visited Iran’s newly-elected President, Hassan Rouhani, a visit that coincided with a stealth outreach to Tehran, via Oman. The agenda of those meetings, was to finalize negotiations between the Obama administration, P5+1, and Iran on the nuclear weapons program deal that came to be known as the JCPOA.

When asked if the US backs Feltman’s visit to North Korea, State Department officials only say they are “aware” of the meetings, an interesting choice of words. It is an intriguing historical, if not negotiating, parallel to the JCPOA talks.

Pessimist belief

According to the Chinese President, the relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang, is not as good as it was in the past, but not as bad as some “pessimists” would believe. While the DPRK will not “fawn over” China, it does not want to break relations with China and maintaining relations with North Korea, Xi added, is crucial – China must never turn North Korea into an enemy, at any time, in any situation.

To his internal audience, he proceeded to assert that both the DPRK and the USA were in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions, with the US expanding the intent of UN resolutions at will. China, he is reported to have said, has fulfilled its obligations to the UN, at the cost of its relations with the DPRK, while the US and its allies have failed to fulfil their obligations and to push for talks.

Chinese officials fully expect North Korea to bide for time to continue conducting nuclear tests, and to launch additional tests of its Hwasong-15 missile to finalize its design over the next few months. But Beijing’s official policy response will be framed by a stated imperative that UNSC sanctions not unduly harm the North Korean people, bring down the North Korean regime, or turn North Korea into an enemy of China.

Since then, Beijing, while never explicitly linking the Korea issue with trade, is also expressing deep dissatisfaction with the imposition last week by the Trump administration of the first anti-dumping and countervailing WTO duty case against Chinese aluminium producers in twenty-five years.

ALSO READ: Trump taunts North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, says he won’t call him ‘short and fat’

Still seething from the US refusal to grant China market economy status, Chinese officials downplay the latest WTO action on aluminium as more symbolic than substantive. They note that as compared to the 240,00 tons, or roughly $600 million worth, of alloy aluminium sheet China is expected to export this year to the US, domestic production stands at 80 million tons.

But they add there is no question relations between the US and China have taken a turn for the worse since Trump’s visit a month ago to Beijing, from “seemingly warm” to “a delicate state.”

Unlike the renewed volatility in the wider Muslim and Middle East following the unilateral US Jerusalem declaration, Beijing has been told North and South Korea intend to begin multi-channel talks soon, and with South Korea’s President scheduled to visit China in the next month, Chinese officials believe the Korean peninsula will in the short term at least remain relatively stable.

The quiet background diplomacy of Mr. Feltman could still work. Let us hope so as the world cannot contain several fires at the same time.
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Dr. Mohamed Ramady is an energy economist and geo-political expert on the GCC and former Professor at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. His latest book is on ‘Saudi Aramco 2030: Post IPO challenges’.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.