Asia Pacific / Politics

Xi writes rare op-ed in North Korea's ruling party newspaper, touts 'grand plan' for East Asia stability

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

Chinese President Xi Jinping has penned a front page op-ed in the Wednesday edition of North Korea’s ruling party newspaper, a day ahead of his landmark visit to the nuclear-armed country, writing that Beijing is willing to work with Pyongyang to prepare a “grand plan” for achieving “permanent stability” in East Asia.

In the commentary in the Rodong Sinmun — the official mouthpiece of the North’s ruling Worker’s Party of Korea — Xi said Beijing vowed to play a greater role in pushing for progress on stalled nuclear negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea, calling Pyongyang’s demands “reasonable.”

“We will actively contribute to regional peace, stability, development and prosperity by strengthening communication and coordination with North Korea and other relevant parties to make progress in talks and negotiations on the issues on the Korean Peninsula,” Xi said in the piece.

Nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang have been deadlocked since a February summit in Hanoi between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump collapsed without a deal due to major differences over the scope of the North’s denuclearization and potential sanctions relief by the United States.

Beijing, the North’s top ally and economic lifeline, has advocated for a step-by-step, dual-track process — an approach similar to the “phased and synchronous” one pushed by Pyongyang — but Washington has said that the North must first relinquish its nukes before the U.S. agrees to ease crippling sanctions.

Experts say Kim is unlikely to give up his nuclear arsenal, which he views as essential to the survival of his regime. A report by Voice of America on Monday, citing what it said was a leaked internal North Korean policy document, appeared to back up this claim, making clear that Kim saw the meeting in Hanoi as a way of striking “a final deal” and a path toward acceptance as a “global nuclear strategic state.”

The Japan Times could not independently confirm the veracity of the document.

Nevertheless, China appears to be ramping up its backing for a step-by-step approach in the U.S.-North Korea nuclear talks by leaning on both Kim and Trump.

Xi’s front-page commentary, a rarity for a foreign head of state, was seen as an attempt by the Chinese leader to highlight Sino-North Korean ties ahead of his two-day “state visit” to the country at the invitation of Kim.

The trip, his first since assuming office in 2013, will also mark the first time in 14 years that a Chinese leader has visited the North and comes on the heels of four visits to China by Kim since last year.

Experts said that the trip’s timing — one week before the Group of 20 summit in the city of Osaka — was intended as a signal to the U.S. and Japan that his influence and backing for Kim has not waned.

“While the relationship between China and North Korea is no longer as close as ‘lips and teeth,’ as it used to be portrayed, Xi Jinping will want to demonstrate that he is still the key global player when it comes to dealing with North Korea, and that China cannot be sidelined in any future negotiations on the country’s nuclear program,” Katie Stallard-Blanchette, a fellow with the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, wrote in a blog post Tuesday.

The visit also comes amid a protracted trade war with the U.S. that has seen Sino-American ties deteriorate. And observers have said that the meeting with Kim — with the sway China holds over nuclear and other issues in the region — could serve as a reminder to Trump that cooperation with Beijing is a necessity if Washington hopes to achieve its strategic goals in the Asia-Pacific.

Trump said Tuesday that he had spoken to Xi over the telephone and that the two leaders’ teams would restart trade talks after a long lull in order to prepare for a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit.

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