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On U.S.-North Korea Talks, China May Hold the Cards

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DANDONG, China — Along the Chinese border with North Korea, the evidence of Beijing’s leverage in the coming talks between President Trump and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, is everywhere.

Footage of China’s president, Xi Jinping, hosting Mr. Kim this week plays in a loop on a big outdoor screen here in the city of Dandong, and residents are eager for cross-border trade to resume as sanctions on North Korea are eased. Traders say they are putting in advance orders for coal from North Korean suppliers. Some exporters are already smuggling goods across the border.

“If you bribe the customs officials twice as much as before,” said one businessman who sells machinery for mining, “some of the smaller equipment goes through.”

At a new apartment complex where four 15-story towers are going up, sales have taken off and prices have doubled as buyers — including North Koreans carrying stacks of Chinese currency — snap up studios overlooking the Yalu River, a saleswoman said.

The Trump administration insists it will maintain its campaign of “maximum pressure” on the North until Mr. Kim has shown “substantial dismantlement” of his nuclear arsenal. But the buoyant mood in Dandong is a reminder that China, as North Korea’s main trade partner, can decide how strictly to enforce the international sanctions against it.

Beijing has already positioned itself as a critical player that can shape the outcome of the talks, which Mr. Trump said will take place June 12 in Singapore. The reclusive Mr. Kim has traveled twice in the past two months to China to consult with Mr. Xi, notably in each case just before hosting a visit by Mike Pompeo, the new American secretary of state.

The message both times was clear: Mr. Kim wants China’s support for his approach to nuclear disarmament — a gradual, action-for-action process in which the North is rewarded for each move it takes toward denuclearization.

Mr. Trump’s national security team has urged a faster approach, with a timetable as quick as six months to a year, and economic benefits coming only at the end. In his meeting with Mr. Kim this week, though, Mr. Xi endorsed “phased and synchronous measures” that would “eventually achieve denuclearization and lasting peace on the peninsula.”

Even as Mr. Trump is celebrating North Korea’s release of three American prisoners, China has many reasons to believe it will come out ahead in the coming talks.

For one thing, its leverage over sanctions


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