Foreign Policy

NoKo Threatens to Cancel Summit, but Will China Let It?

Kim is angling for concessions from Trump before any deal is done, but Beijing is the key.

Thomas Gallatin · May 16, 2018

Predictably, North Korea pulled out of ongoing talks with South Korea yesterday as well as threatened to cancel the upcoming summit between dictator Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump in Singapore next month. Why? Ostensibly because of annual U.S.-South Korea military drills. North Korean state-run media reported, “This exercise targeting us, which is being carried out across South Korea, is a flagrant challenge to the Panmunjom Declaration and an intentional military provocation running counter to the positive political development on the Korean Peninsula. The United States will also have to undertake careful deliberations about the fate of the planned North Korea-U.S. summit in light of this provocative military ruckus jointly conducted with the South Korean authorities.” This announcement runs counter to earlier reports that Kim did not object to the military exercise. However, it’s worth noting that North Korea’s language condemning the annual military exercises is significantly more reserved than in prior years.

Truth be told, this moving of the goalposts is nothing new for the rogue nation. Kim’s primary goal is to maintain his grip on power, while at the same time working to relieve the extremely debilitating effects of the U.S.-led international sanctions. He is now angling for concessions from the U.S. ahead of any deal. It’s the classic bait-and-switch play. China, while understandably desiring to avoid any real possibility of war in its region, still wants to maintain its North Korean puppet as a bargaining chip, which it can regularly rattle for its own geopolitical aims.

But do these reports signal that the highly anticipated summit talks are essentially over or for naught? Not at all. The two countries that have the most to lose should the summit collapse are North Korea and, even more significantly, China. Trump has kept the pressure on China by continuing to threaten increased tariffs should China not concede to playing fair with trade, while at the same time he has offered juicy carrots such as a willingness to reexamine the U.S.‘s export ban on ZTE issued last month. The ban will have a massively crippling effect on the Chinese telecom giant, as last year alone ZTE imported over $2 billion worth of components from U.S. companies.

So while Kim would love to play the same old game North Korea’s leaders have always played, proclaiming their willingness to turn from their threatening ways in exchange for sanctions relief and economic benefits only to later renege, China is unlikely to let Kim play the old charade this time if doing so provokes even more of Trump’s trade squeeze. In the meantime, expect to hear continued rumblings and threats to cancel from North Korea right up until the summit occurs.

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