Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with visiting North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Ri Kil Song Wednesday, the first visit to Beijing by a high-level North Korean official since May. Both sides expressed their hopes for friendly Beijing-Pyongyang ties and Ri claimed that North Korea is willing to have in-depth talks with China on the situation of the Korean Peninsula.
China in February announced a halt to North Korean coal imports for the rest of 2017. The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) later published a commentary which harshly criticized China without directly mentioning it by name, so Ri's Beijing visit at this time has naturally triggered much speculation.
Tensions on the Korean Peninsula continue to ramp up, with the US, South Korea and the North constantly raising the stakes.
The situation is perhaps the most dangerous since the end of the Korean War (1950-53).
Chinese society is divided on how to encourage Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear ambitions, but it is highly consistent on the ultimate goal of the peninsula's denuclearization.
Reports on Kim Jong-nam's murder have negatively affected Pyongyang's image in China. Part of the public anger over Seoul's decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system has been transferred to strong dissatisfaction against the North. Voices that Beijing should be tougher on, and even break its ties with Pyongyang, are frequently heard online.
China's decision to halt imports of North Korean coal is right and persuasive, but it would be naïve to rupture diplomatic ties with Pyongyang. Beijing remains steadfast in its compliance with UN sanctions, but it has no intention of giving up its friendly Pyongyang policy.
The situation on the peninsula will be positively affected if China insists on this stance.
Beijing has sent a clear signal of opposition to Pyongyang's nuclear programs and is urging the latter to return to negotiations. This is the basis of China's North Korea policy and Pyongyang must face it squarely. Meanwhile, unlike Washington and Seoul, Beijing will not threaten Pyongyang's political security.
Given all the potential ramifications of Pyongyang's nuclear issue, no policy can benefit all parties, but China's current North Korea policy is the most beneficial.
China must prioritize its national interests when devising its Pyongyang policy. Beijing cannot accept Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions, but it is clear that the nuclear crisis was triggered by Washington's and Seoul's radical policies on the North.
China should not be pushed to the front to address Northeast Asia's most troublesome problem on behalf of the US and South Korea.
Ri's Beijing visit has added more variables to the Sino-North Korean relationship following the KCNA criticism. North Korea still believes that nuclear weapons are the trump card for its national security, but more evidence suggests that the reality is the opposite.
We hope Pyongyang will eventually realize that instead of security, nuclear arms will only bring them risks that are beyond their control.