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(EDITORIAL from The Korea Times on June 3)

All News 07:13 June 03, 2016

Two-faced China
Denuclearizing peninsula must be prioritized

Ri Su-yong, vice chairman of the central committee of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party, visited Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing Wednesday and delivered a verbal message from the North's young leader, Kim Jong-un.

During the meeting, Xi reportedly stressed the importance of friendly relations with Pyongyang and urged all parties to maintain calm and restraint. Ri, the North's top diplomat, explained to Xi and other Chinese officials the outcome of the Workers' Party's Congress last month, which cemented Kim's leadership and endorsed his policy of pursuing nuclear weapons and economic development simultaneously.

What draws our attention is that the Chinese leader reportedly didn't mention "denuclearization" during the meeting this time. That is in stark contrast with three years ago, when he met with Choe Ryong-hae, then the North's envoy, and emphatically stressed the need for denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.

It's not clear if Xi didn't mention the nuclear issue intentionally. But pundits raise the possibility that China may be backtracking from its active participation in international sanctions since Pyongyang's nuclear and missile tests earlier this year.

What matters most is that recent signs of a thaw in relations between Pyongyang and Beijing could be intended to hold Washington in check. The fact is that China is still angry with the North's continuous push for nuclear weapons, but increasingly feels tempted to embrace its isolated neighbor to counter America's strong pivot to Asia.

As a matter of fact, U.S. President Barack Obama has been using strong-arm tactics against China in the face of its aggressive moves in the South China Sea. As part of such efforts, he visited Vietnam and Japan last week.

This situation serves the interests of North Korea, which must seek a breakthrough while the international community is stepping up sanctions. This also coincides with North Korea's diplomatic strategy to shake the international sanctions after streamlining its internal system through last month's party congress. The North appears to believe that improving relations with China, which serves as a de facto lifeline to the beleaguered North Korean economy, could make U.N. sanctions meaningless.

Of course, all this can't be a reason to think that China might give up its denuclearization efforts anytime soon. At any rate, this must be an undesirable situation for South Korea, which has to achieve its goal of denuclearizing the peninsula rain or shine. It's a pity that the escalating standoff between the two superpowers could stand in the way of Seoul's attempt to look for a clue to breaking the nuclear stalemate.

What is urgently needed is for South Korea to persuade China not to soften sanctions against the North so that the latest thaw between Pyongyang and Beijing won't result in opening the way for the North's eventual nuclear armament.

China is free to use North Korea as leverage in its confrontation with the U.S., but this should not be taken as a signal that it would tolerate the North's nuclear program. As a responsible member of the international community, the Middle Kingdom must put top priority on realizing the denuclearization of the peninsula. If not, it could have the stigma of seemingly being two-faced.

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