By Troy Stangarone
After years of deteriorating relations between North Korea and China, Kim Jong-un recently made his first visit abroad to China. The surprise summit meeting between Kim Jong-un and Chinese President Xi Jinping comes ahead of highly anticipated summit meetings by Kim Jong-un with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump.
If Trump’s decision to meet with Kim was unexpected, Xi’s desire to meet with Kim prior to his summit meetings with Moon and Trump shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. With South Korean President Moon Jae-in leading efforts to reach out to Kim Jong-un and Trump’s decision to meet with Kim Jong-un, China risked being cut out of discussions of North Korea’s denuclearization all together. If that were to occur it would mean that it had used the leverage it had on North Korea to drive it to the table with the United States and left itself in no position to protect its own interests in any forthcoming talks. Something that was surely unpalatable to Beijing.
If there was ever any prospect of the United States sidelining China in talks over North Korea’s denuclearization, that prospect has ended. By inviting Kim Jong-un to China, Beijing ensures that it met with Kim Jong-un first and reminds the United States that it still has influence over the future of denuclearization and needs to be included in any talks. For Beijing this is about dealing itself back into the game and trying to influence the issues that Kim Jong-un may put on the table in talks. Ideally, Beijing would have also used it as an opportunity to reinforce to Kim that North Korea should avoid provocations in the run up to its summits with South Korea and the United States.
Ever the masters of playing one country off of another, North Korea likely recognized Beijing’s fading position, something which was only confirmed by Xi Jinping’s invitation, and saw it as an opportunity to repair relations with China and expand its options heading into talks with South Korea and the United States. With exports to China falling to only $9.4 million in February, and South Korea not budging on sanctions relief despite North Korea’s Olympic charm offensive, meeting with Xi sends a clear signal to the United States that North Korea has options if Washington’s demands on denuclearization go too far.
At the summit, Kim Jong-un also continued to send the right signals that denuclearization may be in the offing. Having invited President Trump to meet to discuss denuclearization, he is reported by a Chinese summary to have said “If South Korea and the United States respond with good will to our efforts and create an atmosphere of peace and stability, and take phased, synchronized measures to achieve peace, the issue of the denuclearization of the peninsula can reach resolution.” However, the vague nature of the statement still leaves unclear what North Korea is willing to offer and what it might expect in return.
Meeting with Xi Jinping also tells us something about North Korea’s domestic situation. After years of working to solidify his hold on power, Kim Jong-un is now firmly in control and does not fear the prospect of a coup when he travels abroad. It also suggests that sanctions have not yet taken deep hold. If the North Korean economy was in desperate straits, Kim Jong-un would have been unlikely to feel comfortable traveling abroad. All told, his trip to Beijing suggests, that at least for the moment, Kim is firmly in control.
In essence, the meeting between Kim and Xi has reset the dynamics on denuclearization. China has signaled that it will not be left on the sidelines, while North Korea has signaled that it has cards to play despite “maximum pressure.” The one questions that remains unclear is if North Korea was able to secure some measure of sanctions relief from China. If they have, convincing Pyongyang to denuclearize just became much more difficult.
Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Michael McDonough’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.