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China aims to weaken U.S.-Korea ties: Report

Nov 19,2018
China isn’t as committed to North Korea’s denuclearization as Washington or Seoul and aims to weaken the South Korea-U.S. alliance, according to an annual report on the U.S.-China economic and security relationship submitted to the U.S. Congress on Wednesday.

Beijing also appears to have already relaxed its enforcement of sanctions on North Korea, “undermining the U.S. ‘maximum pressure’ campaign,” according to the extensive report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

The report, which also outlined China’s North Korea strategy, stressed that the “timeline for cutting sanctions is perhaps the most prominent process issue.” It added that “harmonizing the timeline and sequencing for implementing a comprehensive agreement” will be a priority for negotiators.

U.S. officials prefer “speedy steps toward ending North Korea’s nuclear and long-range missile programs, with the bulk of actions from Pyongyang coming up front before sanctions relief” and have some “potential for flexibility,” according to the report. In turn, China has pushed for a “phased and synchronous” approach, with reciprocal actions from each side.

China “is wary of being isolated” as the United States and South Korea negotiate with the North on denuclearization, the commission found, and fears “losing out” if Pyongyang commits to a full-scale strategic realignment with Seoul and Washington.

It added that Beijing “will seek an active role in trying to shape the terms of any final agreement” to expand and implement the June 12 statement between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump, as it pledged to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

China considers ending “North Korea’s nuclear and long-range missile programs as a worthwhile but secondary goal,” according to the report, but it prioritizes advancing its own geopolitical goals on the Korean Peninsula. It “seeks a deal that goes further to include scaling back or ending the U.S.-South Korea alliance and, eventually, removing U.S. forces” from the peninsula.

It aims to achieve these goals by supporting a peace treaty to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War, seeking the suspension of joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises and pushing for a reduction of U.S. troops in South Korea, the commission added.

The commission also warned that if negotiating parties “cannot agree to verifiably ending North Korea’s nuclear and long-range missile programs,” China could push for laxer verification and enforcement standards and effectively accept North Korea as a nuclear power.

The commission also directed the U.S. Treasury Department to provide a report on the current state of Chinese enforcement of sanctions on North Korea within 180 days. This list would include Chinese financial institutions, businesses and officials involved in trading with North Korea that could be subject to future sanctions.

“China’s foremost interest on the Korean Peninsula is to maintain stability and to ensure it is not isolated in any future peace agreement for the peninsula,” said Carolyn Bartholomew, vice chairperson of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, in a Senate hearing on Wednesday. “Eventually, Beijing would like to steer negotiations in a direction that undermines the U.S.-South Korea alliance and gets American troops out of Korea.”

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]