Trump could try to avoid getting played by coordinating positions with Xi ahead of his meeting with Kim. The U.S. president might have agreed to talk directly with North Korea’s leader, cutting out China as a middleman, for the same reason Trump prefers bilateral trade deals: The mighty United States is more likely to get what it wants when it goes up against one country rather than multiple countries. But in this case, America could benefit from having the middleman closer to its side. “The only way to constrain the small power’s ability to manipulate big powers is for the big powers to have communications among themselves,” Yun said. “As long as the U.S. and China see each other as a bigger problem, North Korea will be able to manipulate the situation.”
But while China and the United States both oppose nuclear weapons in North Korea, their interests in Korea diverge after that. America fears the capabilities of the Kim regime while China fears the collapse of the Kim regime. What the Chinese government ideally wants from the nuclear talks, Yun said, is for the U.S. and North Korea to sign a peace treaty and for North Korea to give up its nuclear program “step by step” in exchange for the United States withdrawing its troops from the Korean peninsula. According to this vision, “North Korea will remain as a pro-China, friendly, nuclear-free force” while “South Korea will also become pro-China or, at a minimum, neutral between the U.S. and China,” Yun said. The Trump administration, by contrast, has indicated that it ideally wants to maintain its alliance with South Korea even as North Korea fully relinquishes its nuclear weapons.
John Bolton, Trump’s incoming national-security adviser, has gone further, repeatedly suggesting that the United States pursue a diplomatic track of persuading China that it’s in Chinese interests to engineer a “controlled collapse” of the Kim regime by severing its economic lifeline to North Korea, supporting a rival political faction, or more forceful means. As Bolton tells it, China would then permit the absorption of North Korea into South Korea with the understanding that the United States would keep its troops in southern Korea rather than moving them up toward China’s border as part of reunification.
Shen dismissed Bolton’s scheme as “nearly impossible,” but Yun wasn’t as quick to do so. Last year, as Trump peppered North Korea with military threats and Kim Jong Un persisted with nuclear and missile tests, the “Chinese were genuinely convinced that war was imminent,” she noted, and similar ideas about China removing the Kim regime began popping up in Chinese policy circles. Proponents of such ideas, which have not been publicly advocated by Chinese officials, considered the prospect of China getting drawn into a second Korean war and direct conflict with the United States, and “differentiated between the North Korean regime and the North Korean country—determining that North Korea the country remains China’s strategic asset, but the North Korean regime is ... hurting China’s national interests,” Yun said. “So I think John Bolton’s proposal is not inconceivable.” At the moment, however, China’s anxiety about war has subsided and its anxiety about being excluded from nuclear negotiations has swelled. Hence Xi Jinping’s reluctant embrace of Kim Jong Un in Beijing.