Trump Says China Appreciates U.S. Diplomatic Efforts With North Korea
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
So South Korean officials are in China today in part to talk about President Trump's decision to meet face to face with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un. That announcement last week triggered a wave of questions and concerns. CIA Director Mike Pompeo went on "Fox News Sunday" to try to reassure critics that a North Korea meeting is a good move.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY")
MIKE POMPEO: President Trump isn't doing this for theater. He's going to solve a problem.
MARTIN: The U.S. has really seen China as the key to solving the North Korean problem. So how much credit should China get for this new diplomatic opening, and what will it mean for its position in the global order? Let's bring in Randy Phillips now. He spent close to three decades in the CIA, most recently as the agency's chief representative in China. And he joins me now on the line. Thanks so much for being with us, Mr. Phillips.
RANDY PHILLIPS: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: Did Chinese pressure on North Korea help create this moment?
PHILLIPS: Well, I think it certainly helped. I don't think that in and of itself made this moment happen but certainly the - with the outcome of this, of getting the North Korean leader and President Trump together, is something that China has been pushing for quite some time. They've wanted to have direct U.S.-North Korean discussions take place. And they've also been looking for a way to try to make this as fruitful as possible. It's something that has fit their diplomatic plans for quite some time.
MARTIN: But, you know, we assume that no country wants a nuclear North Korea, especially not its neighbors in the Asia Pacific. But is that really true of China? I mean, do the Chinese benefit in any way from maintaining the status quo with North Korea, as them as the keeper of the balance among all these players.
PHILLIPS: No, I think you're absolutely right. And that's certainly something that I saw over my time in government and beyond, that China has absolutely benefited strategically from having a North Korea that is a thorn in the side of the U.S. and slightly lesser to Japan and South Korea. So the idea of maintaining a North Korea that fulfills that role and keeps generations of U.S. leaders walking off to Beijing to negotiate Beijing's assistance is a very good strategic card to have in their pocket. So I think they like it. That said, the - I think we've often overplayed the amount of influence that China has in North Korea and that there's clearly been a lot of love lost between the current Chinese leader and the current leadership in North Korea. So I think it's a delicate balance.
MARTIN: Although you say overplayed their importance in all this. But China and North Korea, I mean, that's an incredibly tight trading relationship, is it not? I mean, China is the country that North Korea has the strongest trading ties with, so they do have a lot of influence.
PHILLIPS: Well, they certainly do. And then the question has always been would they be willing to actually utilize it? That's something - if you look at the total amount of trade, various estimates have them at - somewhere around 90 percent of North Korean imports come via China. And certainly they - if they chose to use that card in a very serious way, particularly fuel imports, energy imports, that is something that we've long sought to have China do through U.N. sanctions, et cetera. And they've never really been willing to fully utilize that card. But they certainly have done more in this last year than they've done previously. But there's a lot more they could do to really force the issue. But, again, it comes back to do you want to really shut down that regime?
MARTIN: So why do you - what changed? I mean, why do you think China chose this moment to use that leverage?
PHILLIPS: I think they, frankly, realized that the U.S. was perhaps more serious than previously and that we could actually be leading to a situation where hostilities could break out. And that - and again there is now a lot of love lost between those leaderships. They would rather have a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula. They would rather have a North Korea that doesn't rock the boat to the degree that they have done, particularly this past 18 months or so. But at the end of the day, I don't think they want to see that regime totally go away.
MARTIN: All of this is happening, of course, while there has been this other big development in China when it comes to the leadership there. Over the weekend, China officially did away with term limits, which means that President Xi Jinping can stay in power for the rest of his life if he wants.
MARTIN: Is - does - is this just about him, that China sees him, the Communist Party sees him, as an exceptional leader? I mean, why is this happening now?
PHILLIPS: Well, it's - for the most part, it is about him, but he does enjoy very significant support. I mean, he's a person who would be a great politician perhaps anywhere. He sees himself as the savior of the party, as the person who is rejuvenating China and that he wants to fulfill that mission. He sees himself as uniquely able to do that. And so the rest of the populous really looks at him as a very strong leader that thus far has carried out his promises pretty well. And so I think he's, at this moment in time, still enjoys great support. We'll see how long-lasting that is.
MARTIN: Randy Phillips - he served as chief CIA representative in China. Thanks so much for your time this morning. We appreciate it.
PHILLIPS: Thank you, Rachel.
(SOUNDBITE OF SOULS OF MISCHIEF'S "THERE IS ONLY NOW")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.