China is setting its sights on a key role in North Korea’s future, seeking to be part of any peace treaty, weapons inspections and economic assistance, after emerging as a surprise beneficiary of the summit between the U.S. and North Korean leaders.
Chinese officials are expected to stake out their positions for a post-summit North Korea when U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visits Beijing on Thursday to discuss the outcome of the talks between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
At the top of China’s agenda are an easing of the economic sanctions that pressured North Korea into negotiations and working on ways to provide security guarantees to give Pyongyang the confidence to dismantle its nuclear program.
While China worried that its interests might get short-shrift in the Trump-Kim summit, the meeting unexpectedly proved favorable to Beijing. The summit’s vaguely worded agreement to pursue denuclearization without providing details on how or when to achieve that goal gives Beijing time to lobby Washington, Seoul and Pyongyang for a direct role in negotiations, Chinese experts said.
“This will allow China to breathe easy and not worry about being sidelined,” said Zhu Feng, an international security expert at China’s Nanjing University. He expects Beijing to push for talks on a peace agreement to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War.
China sees North Korea as an important strategic buffer, having fought alongside the North Korean military in the war to beat back the U.S.-led forces and, in recent years, propping up the government as the country’s biggest trade partner, aid donor and foreign investor.
Even as Beijing worked with the U.S. to tighten sanctions to punish Pyongyang for its destabilizing nuclear and missile programs, China sought to retain influence. President Xi Jinping has met twice with North Korea’s Kim since March and China lent him an Air China Boeing 747 to fly to his Singapore summit with President Trump.
In the post-summit maneuverings, Beijing wants to prevent the emergence of a unified, democratic and U.S.-allied Korea and would like to see a reduced American military presence in the South.
Mr. Trump’s unexpected statement at a press conference after the summit that the U.S. would stop its regular “war games” with South Korea likely emboldened Chinese leaders, said Mr. Zhu and other Chinese experts.
Over the past year as it tried to ease tensions on its doorstep, China repeatedly urged the U.S. to suspend the exercises in exchange for Pyongyang freezing its nuclear weapons and missile tests, only to be rebuffed by U.S. and South Korean officials.
Geng Shuang, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, said at a regular news briefing on Wednesday that Mr. Trump’s statement showed that China’s proposal was reasonable, and that “its position on the peninsula issue is tenable.” He said Mr. Pompeo would brief Chinese officials on the summit and the two sides would try to narrow differences.
Another summit windfall for Beijing came when Mr. Trump told reporters he would support China participating in negotiations with the U.S. and North and South Korea on a peace treaty.
U.S. government officials and experts debated in recent weeks whether China needed to be included, given that the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army, which fought in the war, no longer exists and was represented at the 1953 cease fire by a North Korean general.
Further doubts about a Chinese role were raised when Mr. Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in met in April. They agreed to pursue trilateral talks with the U.S.—or quadrilateral talks also involving China—on establishing a permanent peace regime.
China is now expected to push hard for a formal role in those peace negotiations, Chinese experts said. “Politically, diplomatically and even from a legal perspective, China is fully qualified to be one of the participants,” said Cheng Xiaohe, associate professor at Renmin University in Beijing. To be excluded, he said, would be “an embarrassment.”
Beijing sees its involvement in the peace agreement as a way to add weight to any security guarantees that the U.S. offers North Korea in exchange for giving up its nuclear arsenal, Chinese experts said.
“The North Korean state, its government and the ruling family—all have to be guaranteed,” said one Chinese expert involved in official discussions on North Korea.
In weighing those guarantees, the expert said, Beijing has ruled out extending a “nuclear umbrella” to Pyongyang—a commitment to respond in kind to any nuclear attack on North Korea—because that would require a change to China’s strategy of only using atomic weapons in self-defense.
China is also wary of upgrading its 1961 “friendship” treaty with North Korea because it doesn’t want to be obliged to intervene on Pyongyang’s side in a conflict, according to other Chinese scholars.
As a result, China is looking for a comprehensive peace agreement that involves Beijing as well as Washington and that obliges the U.S. to draw down its forces in South Korea, Chinese experts said.
A further way for China to preserve its influence in Pyongyang is to take a leading role in providing any economic assistance offered in exchange for denuclearization, these experts said.
In talks with U.S. counterparts before the Singapore summit, Chinese officials didn’t discuss any specific Chinese role in post-summit scenarios but committed to continuing to enforce U.N. sanctions until they are lifted by the U.N. Security Council, according to a U.S. official. “They say they will squarely implement the sanctions to the letter,” said the official.
Following the summit, however, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman immediately called for the Security Council to review those sanctions. Chinese experts said Beijing is likely to step up its efforts to persuade Washington to relax its “maximum pressure” campaign on Pyongyang.
Further down the road, Beijing is also likely to seek a leading role in inspections of North Korea’s nuclear facilities to verify if Pyongyang agrees to freeze or start dismantling its nuclear-weapons program, the Chinese experts said.
“The North Koreans would want this too,” said the Chinese expert involved in official discussions on North Korea.
Zhao Tong, an expert on North Korea at the Carnegie—Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, said that as a nuclear power, China is well positioned to provide experts to conduct the most sensitive inspections in areas such as warhead design.
“China has a special relationship with North Korea,” he said. “North Korea trusts Chinese inspectors more than American or British or French inspectors so of course if there is going to be a verification regime, China will for sure play a very important role.”
— Xiao Xiao in Beijing contributed to this article.