North Korea: Outreach behind the Escalation

Published on November 22, 2017

President Donald Trump and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced this week that the US will push for a tightening of economic and financial sanctions on North Korea, and formally designated the Kim Jong-un regime as a state sponsor of terrorism. That, as would be expected, has elicited a sharp response from Pyongyang.

*** In parallel to that escalation of pressure, however, the Trump Administration from what we understand also conveyed a private message to Pyongyang through Song Tao, Minister of the International Liaison Department of the CPC Central Committee, that was delivered personally to China’s President Xi Jinping by Trump. That message was that if Kim Jong-un were to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program, Trump would be willing to personally meet with him, anywhere, or even invite him to the United States. ***

Song Tao is already a familiar and trusted intermediary between Beijing and Pyongyang. After North Korea fired its second ballistic missile over Japan, in September, Pyongyang dispatched a minister from the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) for talks with Song to convey the “WPK,” and Kim Jong-un’s, position on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

For what it’s worth, North Korea’s points were:

1 – The DPRK’s existing nuclear weapons program is the same as China’s nuclear program during the 1950s – 1960s. The DPRK’s nuclear program is “purely for the safeguarding of national security, and the prevention of foreign invasion.”

2 – The DPRK’s nuclear program is not directed at any country (except the US and Japan). DPRK’s nuclear program is not aimed at South Korea as “we are Korean compatriots.”

3 – China and the Chinese Communist Party must cherish their friendship with the DPRK and the WPK. The DPRK wants China to at least maintain normal economic and trade relations with it, and warns vaguely that if “normal” economic and trade relations cannot be maintained, the DPRK can only go its own way.

Personal Chemistry and Envoys

The latest round is not the first time the Trump Administration and North Korea have communicated directly, even if through intermediaries. The two sides did meet briefly in Norway, Oslo earlier this year, even if that meeting was conducted by mid-level officials.

And from Beijing’s perspective the relationship and personal rapport between Trump and President Xi, after hitting a rough patch earlier this year, could not be better. Well-informed Chinese sources note the very strong chemistry between Trump and Xi, who is said to deeply appreciate the former tycoon’s direct style of conducting business, including putting all major outstanding issues directly on the table for discussion.

On a somewhat lighter note, they note with pride that on his just completed tour of Asia, Trump tweeted ten times while in China, as opposed to only two times from Japan.

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