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Experts: Xi-Kim Talks Without Denuclearization Road Map Are Just Talk

FILE - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un welcomes Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Pyongyang International Airport in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this undated photo released June 21, 2019 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency.
FILE - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un welcomes Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Pyongyang International Airport in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this undated photo released June 21, 2019 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency.

Chinese President Xi Jinping may have encouraged North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to renew talks with the U.S. during his recent visit to Pyongyang, but without a concrete road map for denuclearization, diplomacy is meaningless, experts say.

“The international community hopes that North Korea and the United States can talk and for the talks to get results,” Xi told Kim on Thursday, according to Chinese media.

Xi left Pyongyang early Friday afternoon. It was the first visit by a Chinese president in 14 years.

Pyongyang’s denuclearization talks with Washington have been stalled ever since the Hanoi summit in February, which was cut short without producing any deals.

'Didn't get a positive response'

According to Chinese media, Kim told Xi that North Korea took many positive steps to reduce tensions but “didn’t get a positive response from the relevant side,” referring to the U.S.

Kim added, “North Korea is willing to exercise patience and, at the same time, hopes the relevant side can meet North Korea halfway, seek a solution that accords with both side’s reasonable concerns, and promote results for the talks process of the peninsula issue.”

Evans Revere, acting assistant secretary for East Asia and the Pacific at the State Department during the George W. Bush administration, said Xi’s meeting with Kim could have helped Pyongyang reconsider resuming its talks with Washington.

“There have been signs that North Korea may be preparing to reengage diplomatically,” Revere said. “And the Xi-Kim summit is the latest indication that Pyongyang is exploring what benefits renewed diplomacy might bring.”

Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump said he received a “beautiful letter” from Kim and took an optimistic stance on the possibility of future talks.

Scott Snyder, director of the U.S.-Korea policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the letter signifies that “Kim still values the relationship with Trump.” He added, “Trump is keeping the door open to denuclearization talks, and Kim is keeping the door open to the prospect of American affirmation of North Korea as a nuclear state."

North Korea’s internal policy document used in training its top military officials in November, which VOA obtained over the weekend, indicated Kim’s aspiration for the country is to be accepted as a nuclear state.

Xi’s visit to Pyongyang came ahead of next week's Group of 20 summit in Osaka, where Xi is expected to meet with Trump on the sideline of the summit, which is being hosted by Japan.

'Trying to ... restart things'

Ken Gause, director of the Adversary Analytics Program at CNA, said, “China is trying to kind of restart things.”

He continued, “[Xi] could potentially carry a message from Kim to Trump when he meets Trump later next week and guidance about how to get the negotiations restarted.”

Experts, however, caution Washington against holding talks with Pyongyang without narrowing their gaps over denuclearization.

Revere said, “Diplomacy toward what end?” He continued, “There are no signs that Pyongyang has modified the position that it took at Hanoi summit, where it rejected a common definition of denuclearization with the United States and refused to agree to a timetable and road map to achieve denuclearization.”

At the Hanoi summit, Kim demanded Trump lift sanctions while offering a partial denuclearization of dismantling its Yongbyon nuclear facility. Trump, instead, asked Kim to denuclearize completely in exchange for lifting the sanctions.

North Korea’s concept of denuclearization envisions the U.S. removing its nuclear umbrella and troops from the Korean Peninsula while the U.S. understanding is for North Korea to undertake a fully verified dismantlement of all of its nuclear facilities and weapons.

No interest in dismantling

Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said, “I see no evidence that Kim is interested in dismantling all of his nuclear program.”

Gause said Xi could have told Kim to put more on the table other than dismantling the Yongbyon, while Kim most likely asked Xi to push for sanctions relief in return.

Manning said, “Xi will push Trump to ease sanctions and offer a way to break the stalemate.”

Revere said, however, while Kim could have pressed Xi “for help in removing international sanctions,” Xi would not have agreed “in the absence of concrete North Korean steps toward denuclearization.”

Further, he added, “Beijing will be mindful of the need not to undermine international solidarity and pressure on North Korea by providing open-ended assistance on North Korea.”

Bruce Klingner, the former CIA deputy division chief for Korea and current senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said, “The ball is in North Korea’s court to take tangible, significant steps toward denuclearization before it gets yet more benefits.”

Snyder said, “The essential condition for a third summit is that both leaders work out an understanding in advance that does not repeat the failure of the second summit." He continued, “The stakes will be higher because there will be no walking away.”

Other than showing support toward denuclearization talks, Xi’s visit to Pyongyang was, according to Revere, “a mixture of symbolism, largely rhetorical assurance of support by China to North Korea, and a reminder that China intends to remain a key player in diplomacy with North Korea.”