Sieren′s China: How will the Korean soap opera unfold? | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 15.03.2018
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Sieren's China: How will the Korean soap opera unfold?

A planned meeting between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump could lead to North Korean denuclearization, or it could add fuel to the Korean conflict. There is plenty at stake for China, too, says DW's Frank Sieren.

Now that US President Donald Trump has ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, it is becoming clear that his desire to meet Kim Jong Un is his alone. He made this decision unilaterally after a discussion with the South Korean national security adviser, Chung Eui Yong, who appears to be the only source to have said that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wants to meet Trump at all. Neither Kim nor any of his spokespeople have commented so far.

Trump seems keen on staying in the game now that South and North Korea have succeeded in improving relations, against Washington's will. So keen that he didn't even want to wait for a confirmation that Kim wanted to see him, let alone for a formal invitation.

Read more: With Tillerson's firing, White House loses a voice of reason

"In all honesty [it] came as a little bit of a surprise to us as well that he was so forward-leaning in his conversations with the delegation from South Korea," Tillerson said just a few days ago. Now he's gone.

US wants to name conditions for peace

Did the South Korean adviser generously interpret the whole matter in order to speed up the rapprochement between the two sides? What seems to be forgotten is that Trump and Kim have exchanged a series of insults over the past few months, from "Rocket Man on a suicide mission" to "mentally deranged dotard." When the situation between the two Koreas seemed to relax ahead of the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, there were no words of congratulations or encouragement from Washington. The US does not want a peaceful solution for the two countries if it cannot name the conditions. Thus Trump is doing his best to wedge his way in, whatever the political costs at home.

Frank Sieren (picture-alliance/dpa/M. Tirl)

DW's Frank Sieren

What could have persuaded Kim to give in, if indeed he has? Trump would like his voters to believe his sanctions made the difference. There is no evidence of this either way. Last week, Trump told his supporters in Pennsylvania that the US had shown great strength in the conflict with North Korea. He also said that he thought North Korea was ready "to make peace" and "I think it's time."

North Korea is not as unstable as Trump might think. Its allies prop it up as much as necessary in order to prevent its utter collapse, a scenario which neither China or Russia has any interest in. For Beijing, what's more important than North Korea's nuclear disarmament is stability on the Korean peninsula — especially because if there were to be a military invasion, US troops could reach the Chinese border. Beijing does not want to see scores of refugees crossing into its territory either, let alone situations akin to civil war or nuclear technology getting into the wrong hands. This is why Beijing is worried about the US president going it alone. Trump has entirely different interests.

Beijing and Pyongyang are closer than Beijing and Washington

Even if China supported the UN Security Council's recent sanctions against North Korea, Beijing and Pyongyang are still much closer than Beijing and Washington. China remains a more reliable partner for North Korea. Beijing is best suited to helping North Korea open itself economically. That would be an easier process if North Korean finances were not restricted, because the country has plenty of natural resources.

Read more: Is a Trump-Kim meeting a recipe for disaster? Or so crazy it just might work?

So the Korean conflict remains a US problem for Beijing. Last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called on the US and North Korea to resume dialogue sooner rather than later. However,Beijing is generally not in favor of the spontaneous dialogue that Trump is currently pushing.

Washington continues to call for the total denuclearization of North Korea. Kim Jong Un will not want Washington to give him orders and if he agrees to a meeting, he will want it to be on equal terms. There is also a good chance that if the two egomaniacal performers do meet in May, they will end up escalating the conflict instead of making peace, as the world watches.

Would a meeting elevate Kim's status?

"This is not 'The Apprentice' or a reality TV event," former US ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson recently said. "It's a negotiation with an unpredictable leader who has at least 20 nuclear weapons and who threatens the United States." There are an increasing number dissenting voices in the US saying that by offering bilateral talks to Kim, Trump is elevating his status on the world stage unnecessarily.

Read more: A showdown of the alpha males

In China, there is more emphasis being placed on the April summit between Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Beijing would prefer the US stay out of the whole situation and allow the two Korean states to develop trust towards each other on their own. Trump, however, seems intent on attempting to play Nixon and push rapprochement from Washington. Another cliffhanger in a soap opera Beijing will do everything it can to prevent from escalating.

Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for over 20 years.

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