Park-Xi Summit and Outcomes

On July 4, Chinese president Xi Jinping concluded a two day summit in Seoul, South Korea. During the summit, Xi met with South Korean president Park Geun-hye to discuss, among other matters, the pressing issue of North Korea’s nuclear program.

The fifth bilateral meeting between Park and Xi could not have come at a more appropriate time; just two days before the summit convened, North Korea fired two short-range rockets off the east coast of the peninsula. Missile and rocket launches continue to intensify the threat presented by North Korea, and it was in the immediate wake of such a launch that the Park-Xi summit commenced.

After two days of dialogue, Park and Xi released a joint communique addressing the nuclear issue. Together, they announced a reaffirmation of their “firm opposition to the development of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula.”

Although the statement makes for a nice sound bite, it lacks in substance. Aside from the addition of the words “firm opposition”, Park and Xi’s joint communique is simply a repetition of the same statement issued after their previous summit in Beijing, reflecting at most a minimal shift in China’s position on the nuclear issue. Critics have also pointed out that nowhere in the joint communique do the countries mention North Korea’s nuclear program directly; instead, they diplomatically refer only to the “Korean Peninsula.” Although President Xi was present while Park read a statement announcing that the two nations agree that “denuclearization of North Korea must be achieved at all costs”, China made a point not to use this terminology when discussing the issue.

On July 4, Chinese president Xi Jinping concluded a two day summit in Seoul, South Korea. During the summit, Xi met with South Korean president Park Geun-hye to discuss, among other matters, the pressing issue of North Korea’s nuclear program.

The fifth bilateral meeting between Park and Xi could not have come at a more appropriate time; just two days before the summit convened, North Korea fired two short-range rockets off the east coast of the peninsula. Missile and rocket launches continue to intensify the threat presented by North Korea, and it was in the immediate wake of such a launch that the Park-Xi summit commenced.

After two days of dialogue, Park and Xi released a joint communique addressing the nuclear issue. Together, they announced a reaffirmation of their “firm opposition to the development of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula.”

Although the statement makes for a nice sound bite, it lacks in substance. Aside from the addition of the words “firm opposition”, Park and Xi’s joint communique is simply a repetition of the same statement issued after their previous summit in Beijing, reflecting at most a minimal shift in China’s position on the nuclear issue. Critics have also pointed out that nowhere in the joint communique do the countries mention North Korea’s nuclear program directly; instead, they diplomatically refer only to the “Korean Peninsula.” Although President Xi was present while Park read a statement announcing that the two nations agree that “denuclearization of North Korea must be achieved at all costs”, China made a point not to use this terminology when discussing the issue.

Semantics aside, the joint statement simply does not include any concrete steps towards ending North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. It urges a return to multilateral talks on the issue, but does not create a schedule or plan of action for resuming such talks. It does not demand a resolution to the North Korean nuclear crisis as a prerequisite for continued relationships with Pyongyang.  Disappointingly, though perhaps predictably, while tangible steps were taken in the field of economic development, no parallel progress was made in the area of nuclear policy.

Rather than directly addressing the threat posed by North Korea, it seems that China is merely trying to navigate the shifting regional ties of East Asia. Historically North Korea’s most important ally, China’s budding friendship with South Korea does reflect a departure from traditional alliances. This friendship, based in large part upon mutual concern over Pyongyang’s nuclear provocations, was highlighted by the fact that Xi Jinping chose to visit Seoul before visiting Pyongyang; he is the first Chinese president to do so since South Korea and China formed formal ties in 1992. Though many have dubbed this sign of preference a “snub” to the North, the fact that China did not assume a harder line on denuclearization during the Park-Xi summit demonstrates a lack of Chinese commitment one way or the other in the face of fluctuating regional alignments.

Although the sentiment behind meetings with South Korea is encouraging, to bring North Korea to the negotiating table on nuclear issues, involved countries like China will have to be much firmer in their commitment to denuclearization.