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Chinese Media: Why Did the Hanoi Summit Fail and What Comes Next?
Region: Asia
Theme: Domestic
Location: China
Published July 29, 2019
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Chinese media sources reflect a widespread propensity in 2019 to reassure the United States while not compromising vital national interests on the Korean Peninsula. They heartily welcomed Kim Jong-un’s turn to diplomacy. They enthusiastically endorsed Donald Trump’s embrace of Kim. They strongly approved of Moon Jae-in’s bold moves to straddle the two sides and find a way to build momentum. After praising the Singapore summit’s accomplishments, the Chinese faced the uncomfortable reality of failure in Hanoi, with calls to redouble efforts to put diplomacy back on track and repeated idealistic assertions about how the differences could be bridged. At the same time, they left mostly implicit the true objectives of a deal that Pyongyang was expected to accept and that China would consider suitable in order to satisfy its geopolitical aspirations.

Reassurances consisted of the following claims: China, as asserted in its 2017 white paper, is not trying to squeeze the U.S. out of the region or break the U.S.–ROK alliance, unlike its earlier policy indications; the Sino–DPRK alliance treaty is a relic of a past era without substantive importance; China is firmly committed to denuclearization, but considers it realizable only by means of talks and a long-term, multi-stage process that encourages Pyongyang to abandon its isolation; China does not take sides on whether a “big deal” is needed first to produce “small deals”; and Moon should be encouraged to keep engaging with Kim Jong-un even if Moon is correct in recognizing that he cannot be a mediator since the ROK is a U.S. ally. Yet, Chinese optimism is premised on notions about limits to North Korean demands, on North Korean willingness to denuclearize in return for conditions that are left vague, and on often unstated assumptions about how the peninsula would evolve during the process of denuclearization and how the U.S. military presence would change.

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