China's Support Of U.S.-North Korea Meeting

Chinese President Xi Jinping praised President Trump’s willingness to meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. NPR’s Michel Martin talks to former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Security Council David Pressman about how China fits into the negotiations.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let’s turn now to the president’s announcement that he will meet face-to-face with Kim Jong Un. Now, that was shocking because just months ago, Trump and Kim were trading personal insults. Now, though, the South Korean official who brokered the deal says the meeting will happen within two months. The White House says a time and place to be determined. We decided to tack a bit here and take a look at the role of another key player, China.

This morning, the president tweeted, quote, “Chinese President Xi Jinping and I spoke at length about the meeting with Kim Jong Un of North Korea. President Xi told me he appreciates that the U.S. is working to solve the problem diplomatically, rather than going with the ominous alternative. China continues to be helpful.” China won’t actually be part of these talks, but the country arguably has the biggest stake in this negotiation. They have a longstanding alliance with Pyongyang as North Korea’s chief trade partner and energy supplier.

To talk more about all this, we called Ambassador David Pressman. Ambassador Pressman represented the U.S. on the United Nations Security Council under President Obama and led the U.S. negotiations with China over North Korea sanctions. Those negotiations culminated in what were at the time the most robust sanctions on North Korea imposed in years. Ambassador, welcome. Thanks for speaking to us.

DAVID PRESSMAN: It’s a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: So just to clarify, this is in fact the first time – if this happens, this will be the first time a sitting U.S. president has met with the leader of North Korea. Now, for somebody who’s got a deep background in the region, that might seem like a strange question. But I think for most people, it would be, why? What’s taken so long?

PRESSMAN: Well, you know, certainly no lack of enthusiasm from the North Korean side. Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung – both of Kim Jong Un’s predecessors – had been hankering for a meeting with the United States president. It is something that every successive American president has not agreed to do, and I think for very clear, very good reason. And that is that a summit with the American president is the prize that typically comes at the end of a process. It is not the beginning of one.

MARTIN: So let’s talk about the Chinese side of this, though. China seems to be quite enthusiastic about this. The Chinese foreign minister on Friday urged both sides to show, quote-unquote, “political courage.” So what does that look like from the Chinese perspective? And, talk a little bit more, if you would, about where China is in this and what they hope to gain from these talks.

PRESSMAN: I mean, China, for years, has been advocating for the United States to sit down and talk with the North Koreans with no preconditions. And the U.S. policy has consistently been, we’re happy to talk with the North Koreans, but we’re happy to talk to them about denuclearization. And what appears to have just happened is that the president of the United States has agreed to meet with the leader of North Korea in what is essentially talks without any conditions – because how on earth could there be conditions to those talks when there’s been no preparatory process whatsoever leading up to it? And so I think this is a win for China in that it involves the United States in direct, senior-most level negotiations with the North Koreans and does it in a manner that essentially the United States has achieved nothing at the front end.

MARTIN: But China and the U.S. part ways on the subject of sanctions. I mean, clearly China does not want North Korea to be a nuclear power, but they have not been willing to adhere to sanctions or to really agree to sanctions against North Korea. Why is that?

PRESSMAN: Well, I think that that overstates China’s actions. China has repeatedly now raised its hand in the United Nations Security Council to create tougher and tougher sanctions on North Korea. What it has not yet done in any meaningful way is actually implement those political commitments into pragmatic realities on the ground. And I think that China fundamentally is concerned about a Korean Peninsula with increased American influence, and they’re extremely concerned about actions that the United States has taken as part of its military alliance with South Korea.

Now, China, at the same time, is extremely concerned by the provocative actions and unpredictability of Kim Jong Un. So there is a real opportunity here for a win from the United States to carefully negotiate and work hand-in-glove with our allies, including Japan and South Korea, to try and get the six-party talks or a version of talks on denuclearization launched. The concern that I have here is that what we’ve just seen is an announcement over Twitter that there is going to be – you know, the president tweeted there’s going to be a big announcement, and then suddenly, we hear that there’s going to be a summit meeting between Kim Jong Un and president of the United States. And there is no indication that we have attained anything as a result of it.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, you know, throughout our conversation you’ve expressed a lot of concerns about these talks, should they occur. But just give us your kind of overall assessment to kind of leave us with.

PRESSMAN: I think that you have to look at the context here, and the context is that Kim Jong Un and his father and his grandfather before him have been systematically starving their people for four decades in order to feed their nuclear program. He has endured global isolation in order to advance his nuclear program. Now we are to believe that suddenly overnight he is prepared to abandon it. And there hasn’t been any public commitments or any public statements from Kim Jong Un or Pyongyang. There haven’t been any verifiable steps. There hasn’t been any process to ensure that we even mean the same thing when we use the word denuclearization.

And yet, given all of that uncertainty, the president of the United States is prepared to publicly accept an invitation to have a summit with the leader of North Korea, seemingly on a whim. So the best-case scenario here is that we very, very, very quickly get our act together. Nuclear policy is not something that should be governed by dramatic impulses. If this fails, I think that the risk of conflict is serious.

MARTIN: That’s David Pressman. He’s the former United States ambassador to the United Nations for special political affairs. He’s now a partner at the law firm Boies Schiller Flexner LLP, where his work focuses on international disputes and arbitration. We reached him at his office in New York. Ambassador, thank you so much for speaking with us.

PRESSMAN: Thank you for having me.

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