Preparing for the diplomatic détente with Washington
On Tuesday, March 27, a mysterious armoured train made a round trip from North Korea to Beijing without revealing its key secret: Was Kim Jong-un on board? Speculations were rife after some media reports said that the train transported a number of high-level North Korean officials, including North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un, to Beijing where Kim held meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping. This was a major turn of events as Kim has never travelled outside his hermit kingdom since becoming its leader in 2011, nor has he met with another head of state. However, the timing of this unprecedented meeting is no coincidence, taking place just weeks ahead of a possible summit between Kim and President Donald Trump to negotiate a curb on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes.
On March 28, a day after intense speculation on the secretive visit, Chinese state news agency Xinhua confirmed that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had visited Beijing and held talks with President Xi, and that both leaders held talks at the Great Hall of the People. According to Xinhua, President Xi called for more frequent high-level exchanges between the two countries and expressed praise for the recent positive changes on the Korean peninsula whereas NK’s leader Kim said that with the recent pace of change on the Korean peninsula, it was only right that he brief the Chinese president in person. He also showed his willingness to talks with the United States.
Reports also suggest that during his secretly-guarded visit, North Korean leader expressed his commitment to the denuclearisation on the Korean Peninsula if the conditions were right. Although no details have come out of the meeting, one thing is certain: the visit was a desperate, but strategic, move designed to improve Kim’s position in any future negotiations with the US.
Kim Jong-un’s clandestine trip to China was in many ways an atmospheric throwback to times long gone, when it was possible to keep the movements of even a national leader hidden from public view and the stately progress of a train was preferred to air travel. Whatever efforts were made to keep it temporarily under wraps, Kim’s visit to Beijing marks the next stage in the about-face that began with North Korea’s surprise decision to compete in a joint team with South Korea in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics 2018 and should culminate in the promised summit meeting with Donald Trump. In some ways, it was a necessary staging post.
According to China’s state-run news agency Xinhua, Kim expressed that; “the issue of denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved, if South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realisation of peace.” Meanwhile Xi extolled the importance of historic bond between China and North Korea and accepted Kim’s invitation to visit Pyongyang in the coming months.
Kim’s visit to China is the latest in the rapid succession of recent developments on the Korean Peninsula which has been dizzying. First, there were a series of diplomatic exchanges between South and North Korea during and after the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang. These steps culminated in an historic meeting between senior South Korean officials in Pyongyang with Kim Jong-un in early March. During that meeting, the two sides agreed to an inter-Koreas summit. At this occasion, Kim also indicated his desire to meet directly with US President Donald Trump and floated an apparent willingness to discuss the denuclearisation of the North’s nuclear weapons programme. The proposal was quickly accepted by Trump, despite the council of allies and White House advisers for a more cautious approach, and there are now tentative plans to host a summit between Trump and Kim sometime in May.
Amidst this backdrop, Kim’s visit to China adds an important wrinkle to a complex and fluid situation on the Korean Peninsula. There are several important takeaways from the visit. First, the move is a diplomatic coup for both sides in different ways. For North Korea, the visit signifies a mending of ties with China – its historic partner and ally – after years of strained relations due to Pyongyang’s persistent development of its nuclear weapons programme. After years of struggling to secure a meeting with China’s top leadership, Kim has now elevated his image to the status of equal with his warm and extended welcome in Beijing (which was just short of an official state visit status).
But perhaps more importantly, Pyongyang has now secured itself an important insurance card by shoring up its relations with Beijing. The move both increases leverage for Kim ahead of his upcoming summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his potential meeting subsequently with Trump. This move is especially important for Kim in the light of the recent flurry of changes to Trump’s national security team, with the replacement of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser HR McMaster with Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, respectively. These moves likely signal a more hawkish national security posture moving forward for the Trump administration and reportedly fuelled concerns in Pyongyang that the US may be working toward a military strike of the North. By re-establishing high-level ties with Beijing, Kim has solidified relations with his country’s only real security guarantor.
But while the visit provides benefits going forward for Pyongyang, the big winner here is China. Amidst the flurry of diplomatic activity over the past month – Beijing was at risk of being sidelined as the Moon administration in South Korea appeared to be given a freehand at brokering summitry. China’s acceptance of Kim – despite the sustained imperfection in the Sino-North Korean relationship – has turned this formula upside down in some respects. Indeed, the bold move by China was largely precipitated by the fast-moving variables on the Korean Peninsula and Beijing’s dissatisfaction with potentially being largely an observer of the upcoming summits. The recent National People’s Congress meeting – marked by Xi’s further consolidation of power – provided the political space for this change of tact on North Korea and more pointed foreign policy.
The Xi-Kim summit also clearly signifies that China continues to be the most important player – outside of the US – in working toward a resolution of tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Beijing is often described as Pyongyang’s “lifeline” and has been resistant to turn its back on the Kim regime despite its frustrations with the rise in provocations and growth of its nuclear and missile programmes. While characterisations of North Korea as a “client state” of China are unhelpful and don’t reflect the complexities of the relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang, there is no question that China (which represents 90 percent of North Korea’s trade) is an existential relationship for Kim. From Beijing’s view, this is more a marriage of geo-strategic necessity rather than an alliance of shared values and goals for the region. Beijing’s prime goal will be to leverage its renewed influence on the Korean Peninsula to press for a quid pro quo: “resolution” to tensions for concessions that would weaken the US alliance system in the region, such as an eroded US-South Korea force posture and defanged trilateral cooperation between the US, South Korea and Japan.
This sets up a high-stakes game of summitry over the coming weeks which demands preparation and coordination between Seoul, Washington and also Tokyo. While it appears that North Korea is committed to a meeting with the US, it is significantly less likely that it is interested in giving up its nuclear weapons programme without concessions, such as the dismemberment of US-South Korea alliance and the removal of the US nuclear umbrella over the Korean Peninsula.
Kim’s Beijing visit and Talks with the US
Kim needs Beijing on its side if North Korea is going to achieve its goals at the negotiating table. But, it should be kept in mind that China’s relations with the North Korean regime have seen a steep fall, especially in the recent months, and Beijing’s efforts to distance itself from Pyongyang enjoy wide public support as well. President Xi has publicly stated that China will not protect North Korea if Kim provokes a conflict, and that Beijing and Pyongyang may not take the same side in the event of a new Korean war. Such a historical trip may demonstrate Kim’s willingness to finally heed Beijing’s advice, which would go a long way to improve strained relations.
Having Beijing on his side would work to Kim’s advantage in a number of ways. First, based on past negotiating patterns, Kim is likely to ask for the easing of sanctions and even some positive economic inducements just to stay involved in the diplomatic process. The US, however, will be resistant to this; given its opposition to the economic benefits that were a part of the Iran Nuclear Deal.
Historically, Beijing has been supportive of easing sanctions if it keeps North Korea talking – China is a big piece of the equation given it is responsible for 90 percent of North Korea’s trade with the outside world. If China is so inclined, it could unilaterally provide sanctions relief or even convince the US to soften its attempts at isolating Pyongyang internationally.
Beyond economics, Pyongyang likely got wind that the United States was pushing China to openly discuss contingencies on the peninsula to de-conflict potential operations – and that Beijing was becoming more receptive. China has also carried out a number of exercises that suggest it is actively preparing for a Korea contingency. Since 2015, the majority of Chinese naval drills have taken place in the Bohai and Yellow Sea off the coast of North Korea and Japan, including three known major exercises in the waters close to North Korea. In September 2017, two days after North Korea’s fifth nuclear test, land and air force personnel conducted exercises while China’s strategic rocket force practiced shooting down incoming missiles over the waters close to North Korea. According to a Chinese naval expert, these exercises show “China is prepared and able to stop any power that threatens stability in the region.”
If war breaks out on the peninsula, but China does not intervene to protect North Korea and collaborates in the aftermath with the United States, that would mean the end of Kim. In short, the stakes are high and Kim needs to be in a position to play the two countries off each other – engaging directly with both sides will help him do that.
But is a short visit to Beijing enough? It is hard to know China’s response – media outlets were banned from reporting on North Korea at all and terms such as ‘North Korea,’ ‘Kim Jong-un’ and ‘Fatty the Third’ were completely censored from China’s largest social media platform, Weibo.
China and its leaders are not amateurs when it comes to dealing with the North Korean regime. While Kim’s willingness to leave Pyongyang to go to China’s capital goes a long way to demonstrate his desire for improved relations, Beijing likely has some demands of its own. Xi probably chastised Kim for his provocative behaviour and warned him not to engage in any more nuclear or missile tests under any circumstances. China may even push for domestic political and economic changes within North Korea, or more access and influence with the regime, especially in the context of negotiations with the United States. In other words, if Xi is going to help Kim, China can’t merely be notified of Kim’s decisions, it has to be able to drive them.
Additionally, China needs to make sure that Kim is prepared to negotiate in good faith. If this is merely a stalling tactic until Kim completes his nuclear deterrent, there are concerns that this could be the last straw for the Trump administration, making war on the peninsula all but imminent. This is an outcome that Beijing is hoping to avoid, if possible.
At the very least, Beijing just won itself a seat at the table. While North Korea and the United States will be vying for the upper hand, the ultimate winner will be Beijing. China is in the best position among all three to drive events in its favour – to ensure that there is no war and no collapse. Perhaps most importantly, China’s involvement can ensure that the United States continues to focus on the Korea nuclear issue, thus failing to compete with Beijing for regional power, and perhaps even global influence.