Asia Pacific | ANALYSIS

With historic meeting of leaders, North Korea and China shore up leverage as Kim-Trump talks loom

by Jesse Johnson and Daisuke Kikuchi

Staff Writers

North Korea and China secured major diplomatic victories — and possibly more — this week with leader Kim Jong Un’s visit to Beijing, a move that bolsters Pyongyang’s leverage ahead of talks with Washington and returns Beijing to its role as a central player in the nuclear crisis roiling the Korean Peninsula.

For Kim, the young dictator’s first trip abroad as leader was part of an apparently concerted diplomatic gamble that has paid off in promises of summit meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. leader Donald Trump, as well as the tacit acknowledgement of North Korea as a nuclear state by China.

“Presentationally, at least, this is a big win for Kim; being greeted ‘unofficially’ in Beijing with full honors, getting a personal meeting with Xi Jinping, and cozy family pictures together in the Great Hall,” said Euan Graham, a former British diplomat who served in Pyongyang and who is currently director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Australia.

“For North Korea, it will be presented as China’s symbolic acceptance of it as a power on equal and legitimate terms, and probably regardless of any vague denuclearization commitments given,” he said.

Indeed, while Chinese state media quoted Kim as reiterating his commitment to denuclearization, North Korean dispatches reporting on the Xi-Kim meeting omitted any reference to either scrapping its nuclear program or the Trump summit, which is expected to be held by the end of May, though an exact time and location have yet to be decided.

Graham characterized the North Korean dictator’s sojourn to Beijing as “a useful bit of pageantry for Kim to have, going into the summits with Moon and Trump — a reminder to them both that China has still got DPRK’s back.”

DPRK is the acronym for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

China, seemingly marginalized as the recent months of detente played out, also came away from the talks with a win, experts said, ensuring that it will not be left out of any possible deal between the U.S. and North and South Korea — although it remained to be seen whether this would be a lasting victory.

“Xi seems to be calculating that it is best to get in first, to claim a share of the diplomatic credit — and avoid being shut out of the process,” said Graham. “But I’m not convinced that going first will be remembered as all that decisive in the final analysis, if and when both summits have played out. This was a fence-mending exercise, in both leaders’ interests — but Kim gains more in my view.”

Zhiqun Zhu, a professor of international relations at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, said the visit also likely saw Kim come away with “some sort of guarantee” from Beijing “that China will support North Korea if the Kim-Trump meeting fails.”

“Softening sanctions would be one option,” Zhu said. With “the current trade tensions between the U.S. and China, this is also a gentle reminder to Trump that China remains crucial to the resolution of the North Korea problem.”

Ties between China and the North — a relationship that communist China’s founder Mao Zedong famously called “as close as lips and teeth” — had in recent months hit fresh lows as Beijing joined the international community in piling sanctions on Pyongyang in a bid to get it to rein in its nuclear ambitions.

But this week’s trip underscored that despite that apparent bad blood between the two, both countries are looking to put this behind them and shore up their positions ahead of the planned intra-Korean and U.S.-North Korean summits.

“The visit is probably best characterized as the convergence of Chinese desire to remain relevant and North Korean desire to manipulate (the) U.S. and China against each other,” Yun Sun, a North Korea and China expert at the Stimson Center in Washington, wrote Tuesday on the North Korea-watching 38 North blog. “It is a direct result of the announcement of a Trump-Kim summit earlier this month and reflects” China’s maneuvering to “address its potential exclusion … in a deal that could impact the future of not only the Korean Peninsula, but also the region.”

The Chinese and North Korean leaders’ historic meeting is also expected to have implications for Japan, which Shunji Hiraiwa, a professor of Korean studies at Nanzan University in Nagoya said could leave Tokyo even further isolated.

The professor advised that Tokyo — while maintaining close ties with Washington and Seoul — should also accelerate dialogue with Beijing, asking for cooperation in demanding that North Korea scrap its midrange Rodong missiles, which are capable of striking Japan, and return abductees kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ’80s.

“The negotiation has been lead by South Korea, but since North Korea has recently improved it’s relationship with China … Beijing has become a greater influence,” Hiraiwa said.

Speaking during a parliamentary committee session Wednesday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he hoped for “a thorough explanation” about the meeting from China, according to Kyodo News.

The reported visit of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to Japan in April and a scheduled trilateral summit between Japan, China and South Korea also provide opportunities for Japan to share information and bolster cooperation with Beijing, Hiraiwa added.

“Sino-Japanese relations have been improving,” he said. “Since the two nations have a shared goal of denuclearizing North Korea, it may be tough, but it’s not impossible to have China act cooperatively.”

Besides asking allies and neighboring countries for help, Hiraiwa added that Japan should also accelerate its own direct negotiations with Pyongyang, based on the 2002 Japan-North Korea Pyongyang Declaration, under which Tokyo provided economic assistance to the North and discussed the future of its nuclear missile development.

In February, when Abe explained Japan’s stance on North Korea to the North’s ceremonial leader, Kim Yong Nam, during a reception dinner ahead of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea, “the North Korean side showed interest in solving issues based” on the declaration, Hiraiwa said.

“It’s important that Japan conduct direct negotiations with the North,” he said.

Abe has also shown an interest in talks with the North, saying Monday that Tokyo has been communicating with Pyongyang through “various means” on the possibility of meeting with Kim.

However, realizing this goal may be a challenge — at least in the short-term — as the North rides the wave of diplomacy into its intra-Korean and U.S. summits.

“Kim apparently wants to diversify his dialogue partners,” the Wilson Center’s Yun said in an interview. “If Japan puts itself on a far end of the spectrum, on abductees and denuclearization, it could be left out, especially when Trump is willing to soften U.S. positions. But then for any economic package with Kim to work, I don’t think Japan will be left out.”