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Kim Jong-un Visits Beijing

A ChinaFile Conversation

After two days of rumors, on Wednesday March 28, the official news agencies of China and North Korea announced that North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un had just completed a visit to Beijing. The “unofficial visit,” as Xinhua put it, was Kim’s first international trip since assuming power and an apparent surprise to much of the world. Amid much pageantry and with their wives taking part in the visit, Kim and Chinese Communist Party Secretary Xi Jinping both expressed commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. How should Beijing handle its relationship with North Korea? What does the visit augur for the future of North Korea’s nuclear program? And what does Kim’s meeting with Xi mean for Kim’s potential upcoming meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump? —The Editors

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While pundits have waxed nostalgic about the sorry state of Sino-North Korean relations—as Kim had yet to be received by Xi Jinping—the hard-playing North Korean has been perfecting his nuclear posture review and setting the chessboard for this glorious day: To coax Seoul, Washington, Tokyo, and Beijing into a date with a veritable Nukes ‘R Us state, and get them all to pay up.

Why now? With street cred established by a banner ballistic year, it was time to change the tune from molto agitato to placido and play his neighbors with a faux gesture of peace. The first act of seducing Seoul on the Olympic stage with the First Sister, Kim Yo-jong, already past, Kim the Impresario turned to courting Washington’s vain leadership. Beijing and Tokyo, ever fearful of being marginalized by Washington, would naturally jump into Pyongyang’s not-so-new game. How could Kim be sure? Well, daddy had taught him well. Kim Jong-il made his first trip to China six years after inheriting the throne, on the eve of his June 2000 summit meeting with South Korean leader Kim Dae-jung. Payments followed. Half a billion dollars from Seoul, a visit by the U.S. Secretary of State, and hundreds of millions in aid from the Clinton and Bush administrations, followed by the Japanese Prime Minister’s Pyongyang pilgrimage in September 2002.

Now, six years into his own reign, Kim III seeks to play the role of the proactive, peace-seeking statesman. For Pyongyang, it always pays to provoke. And it pays even more to placate afterwards.

What would Kim and his Chinese hosts have discussed? Coordinated strategies for drawing out the “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” timetable (i.e., how to dislodge U.S. extended nuclear deterrence from the region), eviction of U.S. troops from the South with a peace treaty, a scaling back of sanctions on Pyongyang’s palace economy, and a resumption of normalization talks with Japan (which will entail tens of billions of dollars in cash transferred from Tokyo to Pyongyang). Beijing, reassured that the period of chaos would soon be replaced by a period of unity, would have nodded in approval.

Lost in the bonhomie to come will be the simple question: Why is a nation that has flagrantly violated both the letter and spirit of every major international agreement it has entered into calling for another paper agreement? Well, why not? With another fake nuclear accord and, with any luck, a peace treaty with the American imperialists, Kim would be able to buy time and money with which to refine his nuclear extortion capability and call into question the raison d’etre of the U.S. forces in the region. Both are essential steps in completing the juche revolution, which, in the common American vernacular, means killing off the Republic of Korea.

All the powers suspect this. That’s why Kim will tell South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Trump that he does not call for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces in South Korea, and thus mesmerize the world—just as his father said in 2000 and his grandfather the New York Times and Washington Post reporters in May and June, respectively, in 1972. Kim will come across as “rational” and “peace-seeking,” while Trump will appear the ever-petulant party-pooper.

President Trump’s team should take note of the overriding theme of the Xinhua News Agency readout of the historic meeting this week between Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The Chinese statement emphasized tradition, longevity, and proximity in the statement, underlining that even though a new Kim now reigned in Pyongyang, the relationship between the two countries remains as close as ever.

Xi, however, is determined to restore Beijing’s influence in Pyongyang—influence that was lost and eroded in the aftermath of the 2013 purge of Jang Song-thaek, Kim Jong-un’s uncle and the erstwhile manager of economic ties between the two countries. Of the four proposals that Xi proffered Kim in Beijing, the first emphasized “high-level exchanges” between the two sides—a tactful acknowledgement on Xi’s part that China would like a better idea of North Korea’s intentions. His second proposal doubles down on this, by calling to “make full play of the time-tested valuable practices of strategic communication.”

To emphasize this in practice, it’s highly striking how much of the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership was in attendance for Kim’s visit. Aside from Xi, Li Keqiang, Wang Qishan, Wang Huning, Wang Yi, Yang Jiechi, and others joined to oversee what Xinhua described as an “unofficial visit.” This high-level show of attention from the leadership of a fellow nuclear state for Kim not only served to flatter the North Korean leader’s drive for status in Northeast Asia, but imbued Chinese calls for more frequent high-level contacts with a degree of credibility. Xi, too, has accepted an invitation to visit Pyongyang—an opportunity for him to make good on his proposed high-level interactions.

Interestingly, the 1961 Friendship Treaty between the two countries—the document that codifies China’s only mutual defense obligation—did not appear to come up during this meeting in Beijing. That document has drawn interest in recent years as talk of a possible U.S. preemptive attack has grown. In track-II settings and in occasional editorials in nonauthoritative Chinese state media, the treaty is not highly regarded; today’s interpretation holds that China would honor its defense obligation to North Korea should Pyongyang face external aggression, but it won’t cut Kim a blank check to launch an invasion of South Korea. Kim and Xi acknowledged the treaty’s 55th anniversary in 2016 and Kim Jong-il, during his last trip to Beijing before his death, also made note of the treaty alongside then-Chinese President Hu Jintao. The absence of any mention to that document here is curious, indeed.

Of course, the readouts released by both North Korean and Chinese state media have been carefully curated to give off the appearance of a successful and “comradely” encounter in Beijing between these two leaders. There remains the real possibility that Xi and Kim found areas to agree to disagree. But without any evidence, we are left only to speculate.

With this meeting in Beijing, Xi Jinping has successfully thrust himself into the center of the burgeoning diplomacy in Northeast Asia around North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. This process, that began with Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s Day address and the ensuing diplomacy in Seoul during the Winter Olympics, remains fragile and has the potential for an unexpected outcome. China’s continued quest for stability on the Peninsula demands that it avoid becoming a peripheral player as South Korea and the United States press on with Pyongyang.

In the meantime, too, we should recall that Chinese and North Korean long-term strategic objectives in Northeast Asia have more in common than not: both Xi and Kim, after all, would welcome the eviction of U.S. forces and the U.S. extended nuclear deterrent from South Korea under the guise of the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

Quite conceivably, it was the appointment of the hawk John Bolton as Trump’s National Security Advisor that prompted Kim Jong-un to get on his late father’s rocket-proof train and make the journey to Beijing.

In the context of Trump’s take-no-prisoners approach to trade disputes and other matters, including his handling of the relationships with close U.S. neighbors Mexico and Canada, the North Koreans understandably got a bit nervous.

The timing of Kim’s trip to China leaves room for speculation on all fronts. Official accounts from both Chinese and North Korean sources speak in glowingly positive terms about the visit. Friendship cultivated by the ancestors of current leaders of both countries gets renewed. But if you compare official versions of such visits by Kim’s ancestors, especially his father’s visit, there is not that much that is truly groundbreaking.

With regard to the nuclear issue, it does seem that Kim Jong-un is making clear that he is prepared to see “denuclearization of the peninsula” (emphasis added by me). In the past, news reports, particularly those by Western media outlets, generally leave out reference to the peninsula. It is a mistake that is being repeated again.

Now, reference to the peninsula is where the complication begins. There are two actors in the southern part of the Korean peninsula: South Korea and the United States. Is North Korea expecting the U.S. to agree on and then follow through with a statement about what its military does in the future? For example, what if the United States stations nuclear submarines at the ports in the south?

For China, both North Korea and South Korea are neighbors that cannot move away. During the past year, China went along with the United States—though not exactly 100 percent—in applying economic sanctions on North Korea. It hurts what is normally called “traditional friendship” with the North. But, as Trump’s choice of action showed, China failed to earn much of any appreciation from the Trump White House: Beijing learned about Trump’s agreement to meet Kim from television news.

Kim’s trip to Beijing may generate a couple of days of media interest. But in the end, it is not going to make much of a dent in the dynamics. The drivers of the train of geopolitics on the Korean peninsula continue to be Pyongyang, Seoul, and Washington.

For a few weeks in March, it looked as though China might have been sidelined by the whirlwind Korean Olympic diplomacy that led to Donald Trump agreeing to meet Kim Jong-un by May. That illusion vanished when Kim rolled into town for a summit that put China decisively back in center stage and gained the DPRK invaluable assurances and leverage for its upcoming talks.

Before the secretly-planned meeting, Chinese officials and analysts I spoke with said China could remain calm because it would inevitably have to be part of any efforts to resolve the Korean Peninsula dispute. Some suggested it was enough to observe and continue supporting negotiations and an extension of the “freeze-for-freeze” approach. But privately, many also worried that if China were excluded from negotiations, its interests could be disregarded, and Kim might even implausibly try for his own replay of the Sino-Soviet split, with Trump as a more mercurial Nixon. Washington’s cabinet shake-up stoked further anxiety that hawks such as John Bolton might sabotage talks to bolster a case for kinetic solutions.

President Xi Jinping evidently was taking no chances and swiftly hosted Kim. Diplomatic protocol required that he issue the invitation, but it’s debatable which side wanted it more. Consulting and reassuring Beijing was in Kim’s interest too.

Meeting China’s leader before any other is a Kim family tradition that provides domestic legitimacy. Appearing as an equal to Xi burnishes Kim’s stature at home and provides momentum for meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Trump. Starting to repair badly frayed ties with China fits with Kim’s new charm offensive, potentially disrupts Sino-American and Sino-South Korean coordination, and likely includes hopes for economic inducements and some quiet loosening of sanctions.

For China, the timing was also opportune. Extensive, divisive debate in its policy circles about how to handle North Korea has led to a degree of paralysis. Beijing went along with waves of Security Council sanctions primarily because Pyongyang was flagrantly disregarding its security interests, but also because they were the logical continuation of a tolerable status quo and the path of least resistance under relentless American pressure.

Xi seized the moment to reassert China’s pivotal role in managing Korean tensions. A brewing trade war with the U.S. probably also shaped his calculus. North Korea is far from being China’s puppet, but it is one of the few cards Beijing has to play in its intensifying strategic competition with Washington. 

By saying the meeting was “unofficial” and a “strategic choice,” and that Kim visited out of “moral responsibility,” China signaled that relations are frosty but fixable. Xi also set out what Kim has been avoiding and now must do if he wants help: meet regularly, communicate early and often, prioritize economic development, promote people-to-people exchanges, and agree to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula as a long-term goal. Xi probably also offered to host or mediate talks. Symbolically and practically, that would cement the Middle Kingdom’s position.

If China gets its way, the parties will return to a dialogue framework it can shape, with North Korea a problem to be managed but not an imminent threat, denuclearization again a distant political goal, and sanctions an adjustable valve to manage pressure on Pyongyang.