Kim Jong Un’s fourth visit to China is an indication that North Korea’s leader is preparing for another summit with President Donald Trump, but this week’s visit is also meant to send the message that China and North Korea have strategic ties that Washington cannot ignore, analysts said on Tuesday.
According to the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), Kim’s sojourn in China is to last from Jan. 7-10 and will center on meetings with China’s President Xi Jinping, likely to discuss strategy ahead of negotiations with the United States.
Kim’s first diplomatic foray of 2019, followed a hectic year of Korean peninsula diplomacy last year, with Kim also meeting South Korean President Moon Jae-in three times and holding a high-profile Singapore summit with Trump in June.
Key points expected to be discussed at a proposed second North Korea-U.S. summit are North Korea’s denuclearization, addressed in Singapore in a vaguely worded pledge.
With progress on nuclear issues stalled, Kim has started to demand relief from sanctions implemented under U.N. Security Council resolutions in response to Pyongyang’s repeated nuclear and ballistic missile tests over the past decade.
Experts say that this visit also underscores that China has a major role to play in U.S. negotiations with North Korea and that Chinese involvement in North Korean issues could be used by Beijing as a bargaining chip in tense trade negotiations between the U.S. and China.
“This is another example of Kim Jong Un taking advantage of the situation in Washington and going to China not only to get permission from Xi Jinping but to send an underlying message to Washington, to Trump being that hey, you’re not the only game in town. I have this big China card. So I think there is a dual message there,” said Joseph Yun, Senior Adviser to the Asia Program at the US Institute for Peace.
“Essentially this is pretty much the repeat of last year, when he went to China to get the green light from Xi Jinping that it is okay to have another summit, with Trump,” said Yun, a retired U.S. diplomat who was speaking on a panel in Washington on Northeast Asia strategy in 2019.
“I do think that a second summit will be arranged quite soon, probably at the end of February or early March,” he added.
Former U.S. ambassador to South Korea Kathleen Stephens told the same panel that the Kim-Xi meeting showed the importance of the U.S. working closely with other governments in dealing with North Korean issues.
“We need to deepen the process of consultations with Seoul and also with others in the region,” said Stephens, president and CEO of the Washington-based Korea Economic Institute of America.
“Kim Jong Un going to China is a reminder, and probably a very explicit one, that China has both equity and influence in this,” she said.
Former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill told RFA’s Korean Service that this week’s meetings in Beijing are “part of the process of warming between North Korea and China.”
“China is not happy with the way the U.S. has pursued [the nuclear] issue. The U.S. has gone on the bilateral track and ignored other players in the region, especially China,” said Hill.
Hill expressed concern that the Chinese may be pressing on Kim their view that the U.S. should remove its 28,000 troops from South Korea as part of any settlement and they may attempt to encourage him to stick to that point in negotiations with Trump.
Meanwhile, Bruce Bennett, a researcher for the RAND Corporation, said of the meeting, “Kim has been clearly preparing for his second summit meeting with President Trump.”
“I think that Kim is worried that the President will tell him ‘enough is enough’. It’s time for Kim to stop stalling on denuclearization,” he said.
“Kim wants China’s support. Kim also wants China to relax economic sanctions against North Korea, because China is North Korea’s major trading partner. Any action it takes to relax sanctions could make a major difference for North Korea,” said Bennett.
Across the pond
Experts in South Korea seemed to agree with the assessments of their U.S. counterparts.
Professor Shin Sangjin of Kwangwoon University said, “Kim’s visit to China indicates that another U.S.-North Korea summit will happen soon, especially since President Trump has been saying possible locations are being discussed.”
“Kim wants to maximize his leverage in negotiations with the U.S. Also I think that North Korea is aiming to deliver a clear message that China strongly remains its cooperative ally in the region,” said Shin.
Cho Han-Bum of the Korea Institute for National Unification said that the visit is in line with themes discussed by Kim during his New Year’s address, in which he warned that Pyongyang may change its approach to nuclear talks if Washington persists with sanctions.
“[He] indicated multilateral agreements should be pursued to build a permanent peace regime, clearly implying the role of China,” Cho said.
“North Korea is [through the visit] boasting its improved ties with China.”
Additional Reporting by Sangmin Lee and Yong Jae Mok for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Yewon Ji.