North Korean leader’s Beijing visit underscores China’s pivotal role
THE TIMING SUGGESTS BEIJING COULD SEE PYONGYANG AS A LEVERAGE IN ITS TRADE DISPUTE WITH THE UNITED STATES
JOSH CHIN, ANDREW JEONG WITH denuclearisation talks between Pyongyang and Washington at a standstill, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un turned last week to his country’s long-time patron, China.
For months, North Korea has demanded the US ease sanctions, claiming to have dismantled some of its nuclear facilities. Washington has refused to budge, pledging to maintain sanctions until Pyongyang’s complete denuclearisation in accordance with the agreement between President Trump and Kim in Singapore last year.
Kim’s arrival in Beijing last Tuesday at Chinese President Xi Jinping’s invitation offered a reminder of the close ties between North Korea and China, whose actions have been essential to the US-led effort to enforce sanctions on Pyongyang. That has given President Xi leverage in China’s dealings with Washington, with whom relations have deteriorated as their trade dispute has unfolded.
The timing of the Xi-Kim meeting – as US and Chinese negotiators held their latest round of trade talks in Beijing – represents a “coincidence of interest” between North Korea and China, said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London. Back in 2017, when Pyongyang was testing long-range nuclear missiles, the US and its allies looked to Beijing to help broker a solution.
Now, Beijing could see North Korea as leverage in its trade dispute with the US, while Pyongyang needs China’s assistance securing a second summit with Trump.
“It’s in Beijing’s interest to remind the US they can be very helpful on North Korea,” Tsang said. “It’s a message from both Beijing and Pyongyang to Washington.”
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and North Korea. Last Tuesday, which was also Kim’s birthday, Chinese state-run media ran comments by experts extolling China’s role in finding a solution to the nuclear issue.
“Kim Jong-un’s willingness in 2018 to walk the path to denuclearisation and meet with the US stems in large part from his trust in China,” the Global Times quoted Wang Sheng, a North Korea expert at Jilin University in northeastern China, as saying.
Kim arrived in Beijing by train. He travelled with his wife and senior officials, and stayed in China until Thursday, official North Korean and Chinese news agencies reported.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said at a regular press briefing that Kim’s visit aimed to strengthen communication between the two countries and that China also encourages communication between North Korea and the US. He denied any connection with US trade talks.
“You would know that China’s diplomacy is rich and colourful, and we have many major diplomatic engagements,” Lu said. “There’s nothing particularly unusual for some diplomatic engagements to coincide.”
China has long been North Korea’s top economic partner and de facto security guarantor. Beijing sent hundreds of thousands of troops to aid North Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War.
Security analysts said Kim’s mission in Beijing was likely to seek Xi’s support for his approach in the nuclear talks with the US, and to press China to ease sanctions pressure.
“Kim Jong-un is asking Xi to give him the leverage to say ‘no’ to US Centre: Kim before his departure from Beijing.
Above: Kim chats with Song Tao, head of the International Liaison Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, in a train after their departure from Beijing station. demands to permit inspection of North Korea’s nuclear facilities,” said Nam Sung-wook, a former South Korean intelligence official. “That leverage is breathing room from sanctions.”
Choi Kang, vice president of research at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a private think tank in Seoul, said Kim could be hoping to secure a Chinese agreement to provide the North with more energy aid.
“It’s going to be difficult for Beijing to publicly announce energy support to Pyongyang, due to sanctions,” said Choi. “But the Chinese are already doing it furtively,” he added, referring to allegations that China has been providing North Korea with oil through ship-to-ship transfers on the high seas.
A US congressional commission report said in November that China appeared to have relaxed enforcement of sanctions on North Korea and was “undermining the US ‘maximum pressure’ campaign”.
Beijing has said it enforces sanctions in accordance with United Nations Security Council resolutions.
Despite historic ties between their countries, Kim didn’t visit China for the first six years of his rule after succeeding his father, Kim Jong-il. But having met Trump, Kim now enjoys new diplomatic clout, said John Delury, an expert in China and North Korea at Yonsei University in Seoul.
On the flip side, he said, Xi and other Communist Party leaders now have to work harder to make sure Pyongyang doesn’t decide to deal directly with the US and cut China out of the nuclear conversation.
“IT’S IN BEIJING’S INTEREST TO REMIND THE US THEY CAN BE VERY HELPFUL ON NORTH KOREA,” SAID STEVE TSANG, DIRECTOR OF THE SOAS CHINA INSTITUTE IN LONDON. “IT’S A MESSAGE FROM BOTH BEIJING AND PYONGYANG TO WASHINGTON.”
Delury said Xi has an interest in linking North Korea with trade, because it allows Beijing to portray itself as doing Trump a favour by helping him notch a foreign-policy win.
“If it’s those two issues and if the focus is on North Korea, then it takes a lot of pressure off China across the board,” he said.
Meanwhile, speculation has grown around the timing and venue for a second US-North Korea summit. Last year, Kim went to China for talks with Xi about a month before the North Korean leader’s June meeting with President Trump. He followed up with another visit to Beijing a week after its conclusion.
South Korea’s semiofficial Yonhap News Agency reported that Vietnamese officials had alerted North Korea of their desire to host the next US-North Korea summit. The report mentioned Vietnam’s port city of Da Nang as a possible location. The city hosted a major Asia-Pacific summit in 2017, which Trump attended, and a US carrier docked there last year.
A US State Department official declined to comment, citing reduced staffing amid the US government shutdown.
“Vietnam is one of the best places,” said Nam, the former intelligence official. But the problem isn’t where to hold the summit, he added, but rather the need to reach specific denuclearisation agreements before the two leaders meet.
“If Trump and Kim agree to weak agreements again, it’ll be bad for both of them. Kim Jong-un won’t have his sanctions lifted,” Nam said.
A photo released by the official Korean Central News Agency shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un with Chinese President Xi Jinping during Kim’s visit to Beijing on January 10.