Kim Jong Un has visited China in his first overseas trip to a foreign country since taking power in 2011. China has used the opportunity to remind the world of the decisive role it would play in missile talks before Kim Jong Un’s planned summits with the presidents of South Korea and the US. The North Korean leader’s secretive talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing — which were not confirmed until he returned home — seem aimed at broadening the leverage of both countries. So, how significant are they and do they mean that North Korea is now ready for more engagement on the nuclear issue?
Kim Jong Un’s choosing a journey to China in his father’s armoured train for his first international outing seems like a smart choice given that security is the priority for the North Korean government. It’s very important to look at all of this in the big picture which is global diplomacy after a very intensive year of missile and nuclear testing. The previous year saw the world watch as Pyongyang tested three ICBMs as the nation stated definitively that it would proceed with plans to develop North Korea as a nuclear force. In other words, Pyongyang has set out its nuclear weapons program and is now willing to talk. But, it seems the denuclearisation it is prepared to discuss is limited. This means denuclearisation is a very lofty goal and there will be a lot of difficulty in laying the foundation for creating a credible pathway that will satisfy all sides.
Understandably, this is also significant from the diplomatic viewpoint. For Xi Jingping this is a diplomatic triumph. He, not US President Donald Trump, is now the first world leader to meet Kim Jong Un. Visits like this are all about symbolism. For Xi it serves as a reminder that China still holds sway over its neighbour and intends to be at the centre of diplomatic efforts to achieve a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. From the economic point of view, the meeting also gives China some more leverage as it faces a possible trade war with Trump. In February, the US president signed a law upgrading the diplomatic status of Taiwan, a shift that risks inflaming tension with China. It is signalling that Chinese leaders have a chance to assert their influence in any diplomatic solution.
Whatever it is that is pushing North Korea to these new rounds of negotiations, Kim’s visit is significant because of the tense relations between the two neighbours that seemingly started growing last year.
The point is that China could never be side-lined in discussions on its neighbours, especially the country with which it shares the longest border. China is going to be necessary to any kind of resolution. Bear in mind that despite all these talks, the situation has not changed. The US is not going to abide a North Korea with a nuclear capability of reaching the US. And, it’s very doubtful that Pyongyang would give up its only major leverage – its nuclear program. So, there has to be some sort of breakthrough and that will likely have to be a security guarantee, either from Russia, China or from both. There is a lack of trust when it comes to the US given what has happened with Iran and the dealings with Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi and Assad.
So, in these particular instances, there are doubts that North Korea is going to entirely trust the US. This may only be the beginning of a play for time to see what China, the US and the world will pay to have North Korea under control. It appears that China will be essential to any sort of control over North Korea and it will have the very unenviable task of keeping it in line while easing the pressure on it enough to prevent a regime collapse on its border.
China’s main goal with regard to North Korea is to ensure stability. Accordingly, Seoul, Beijing and Pyongyang are on the same page here with regards to a positive outcome – one that will satisfy Trump at least until the end of his administration. If these three, united by concerns but divided by national interests, can come to an agreement where Pyongyang on the surface agrees to give up more of its nuclear programme, it could satisfy Trump for the short term.
Contextualising bilateral relations
China and North Korea have been allies since the 1950s and signed a mutual defence treaty decades ago. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers are believed to have died in the Korean War and North Korea has been an important buffer for China ever since keeping US troops allied with South Korea away from the Chinese border. But China did not support Pyongyang’s intercontinental missile ambitions expanded under leadership of Kim Jong Un. Instead Chinese leaders have tried to convince their neighbours to stop developing nuclear bombs. The Chinese government led seven years of negotiations, known as six-party talks to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear program. After Kim Jong Un took power in 2011, the Chinese were surprised by the purge of several North Koreans with close links to China, including Kim’s uncle Jang song-thaek. Kim has also angered his Chinese allies with missile and nuclear bomb tests, which led China to suspend coal and iron ore imports from the North last year. China’s overall trade declined by more than 10 percent in 2017 and that appears to be a major economic blow considering Beijing accounts for almost 90 percent of total trade in North Korea.
Beijing is indispensable
In the short term, Kim will be looking for respite from sanctions that have restrained exports of everything from coal to seafood while also curbing oil imports. In the long run, he wants a peace treaty that officially ends the Korean War and ensures his family’s interests are protected. Truth be told, it was essential for Kim to bolster the support of Pyongyang’s biggest trading partner and economic lifeline before heading into talks with Trump to achieve those goals. Interestingly, the world saw Kim Jong Un’s father Kim Jong-il making his first trip to China in the year 2000, reportedly to consult with the Chinese leadership ahead of his summit with the South Korean’s then leader Kim Dae-jung.
Commenting on this Shi Yongming, research associate at the China Institute of International Studies stated that: “China is indispensable to North Korea, and there is no way that Kim will initiate talks with President Trump without consulting China.”
One can conclude that it is unclear what made Kim come to Beijing or indeed what he may have been offered to do so, but China remains North Korea’s only real friend and ally. So, it is fair to assume that Xi Jingping might want to know what Kim’s negotiating strategy will be during his upcoming summit with Trump. And Kim’s visit has made it possible for China to know what North Korea will be talking about to South Korea and the United States.