TOKYO – With all the verbal barbs flying between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump these days, China’s decision to send its most senior official to North Korea in more than two years could be a welcome opportunity to defuse the growing tensions between Washington and Pyongyang.
But the way things are going, it could just as well turn out to be little more than a diplomatic courtesy.
Song Tao, the head of China’s ruling Communist Party’s international department, will travel to Pyongyang on Friday to report on the party’s national congress held last month, the official Xinhua News Agency said. Song, as president and party leader Xi Jinping’s special envoy, will reportedly also carry out a “visit” in addition to delivering the briefing.
The announcement of the visit Wednesday seems especially timely because it comes a day after Trump wrapped up his extended tour of Asia. The tour took him to three major players in the regional effort to pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions — Japan, South Korea and China. China is the linchpin of any such effort, and in Beijing Trump said it can fix the North Korea problem “easily and quickly.” He urged Xi to “work on it very hard.”
It’s quite possible Xi wants to explore new relations with North Korea as he starts his second term in office.
Beijing does not want to invite chaos on its border by pushing Pyongyang into a crisis, and the focus on North Korea has worked to China’s benefit in so far as it has deflected Washington’s attention away from Beijing’s moves to exert more control over the South and East China seas.
But Chinese officials share Washington’s opposition to Pyongyang’s development of its nuclear arsenal and long-range missile programs.
Some North Korea watchers suggest China, which while agreeing to sanctions has consistently stressed the need for engagement and dialogue, might be mulling the possibility of a summit with Kim, who has yet to travel overseas or meet a foreign head of state since assuming power in late 2011.
Song’s visit, however, will more likely be about small steps than big successes.
It’s customary for China to send an official to Pyongyang after significant events such as party congresses, which are only held once every five years. So the briefing aspect is largely a formality.
While Song would be the first ministerial-level Chinese official to visit North Korea since October 2015, he is not directly connected to China’s efforts to convince Pyongyang to cease its nuclear weapons program and return to talks. So flashy breakthroughs on that front aren’t likely.
China is an essential trading partner and source of fuel for North Korea, but few experts share Trump’s assessment that pressure from Beijing could offer the kind of quick or easy fix that the United States is looking for.
North Korea has time and again said it has no intention of backing away from its nuclear program. It sees the program as a justified and necessary means of national self-defense in the face of an enemy that is not only the world’s most advanced nuclear power but also the only country to have ever used nuclear weapons in combat.
Pyongyang has also been increasingly critical of what it sees as China’s willingness to deal with Trump, despite Chinese-North Korean economic ties and history as comrades in arms during the 1950-53 Korean War.
Meanwhile, Trump’s tough talk — including his recent barbed tweet saying he would never call Kim short and fat, for example — hasn’t paved the way for conciliatory measures from Pyongyang, at least not in public.
Just before posting its article announcing Song’s visit, KCNA, the North’s official news agency, called Trump “an old lunatic, mean trickster and human reject.” A commentary Wednesday by the ruling party’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper said Trump is “an old slave of money.”
“He should know that he is just a hideous criminal sentenced to death by the Korean people,” it added.
What Song returns with may hinge on how he can negotiate that minefield of tough talk.
Talmadge has been the AP’s Pyongyang bureau chief since 2013. Follow him on Twitter at EricTalmadge and on Instagram @erictalmadge