BEIJING - Kim Jong Un doesn’t appear to be in a rush to dump his nuclear weapons.
In talks with China President Xi Jinping on Tuesday, the North Korean leader reiterated his call for a gradual process to carry out the results of last week’s summit with U.S. President Donald Trump. Chinese state media cited Kim saying that denuclearization will open up new prospects if both sides can “implement the consensus of the summit step by step solidly.”
Kim’s remarks are another sign of lingering disagreements between Pyongyang and Washington over the pace and sequence of North Korea’s disarmament and sanctions relief. Trump has said Kim could only see penalties relaxed after he “completely denuclearized,” while North Korean state media has previously said the U.S. president had agreed to a “step-by-step” process.
The statement signed in Singapore on June 12 included no timetable for denuclearization, and Trump told reporters in the city-state the same day that he didn’t know how long it would take, “but it will be quickly.”
Kim’s third trip to China since March underscores Beijing’s economic and political sway over its smaller neighbor. China, which supplies more than 80 percent of North Korea’s imports, holds a unique combination of carrots and sticks that could make or break talks between Trump and Kim.
State broadcaster CCTV said Xi told Kim that through the “concerted efforts of the relevant countries” negotiations regarding issues on the Korean Peninsula are back on track and the overall situation is moving in the direction of peace and stability.
The summit between Kim and Trump marked an “important step toward the political solution of the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue,” Xi was quoted as saying in the meeting at the Great Hall of the People in central Beijing.
China hopes North Korea and the U.S. can “implement well the outcomes achieved at the summit,” Xi said. China would “as always play a constructive role” in that process, he said.
The North’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), meanwhile, said that Kim had also promised during his meeting with Xi to cooperate with Chinese officials to secure “true peace” in the process of “opening a new future” on the Korean Peninsula.
Along with a statement signed by Kim and Trump at the summit offering vague commitments to denuclearization and security, Trump also agreed to suspend military exercises with South Korea in what was seen as a major win for North Korea and its chief allies, China and Russia.
On Wednesday, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-hwa said the decision to suspend the exercise could be reconsidered based on future developments with North Korea.
“I think we’ve made it clear this is a goodwill gesture to strengthen dialogue momentum,” Kang said.
“It’s not irreversible. They could come back if the dialogue loses speed, or if North Korea doesn’t live up to its denuclearization commitment,” she said.
Kang also said that sanctions against the North will remain in place until Pyongyang can assure concerned parties such as South Korea that “complete denuclearization has been achieved.”
She said South Korea expected to see “concrete action” by the North to “live up to its complete denuclearization commitment,” in return for guarantees of its security and other efforts for peace.
Kim’s two-day visit to China, which began Tuesday, had not been announced in advance but was expected as part of the Communist neighbors’ tradition to report to each other on major developments.
The visit is Kim’s third to China since March, highlighting China’s crucial role in efforts by the U.S. and others to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear program. The U.S. has long looked to China to use its influence with North Korea to bring it to negotiations, but the visit comes as ties between Beijing and Washington are being tested by a major trade dispute.
CCTV showed Kim and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, being welcomed by Xi with full military honors. Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, later hosted Kim and Ri at a banquet, CCTV reported.
China’s official Xinhua News Agency announced the North Korean leader’s visit shortly after he apparently landed Tuesday morning, dispensing with the secrecy shrouding previous trips to China by Kim and his father and predecessor, Kim Jong Il.
On the younger Kim’s first visit to China as leader, he took an armored train as his father had. His first two trips were not announced until after he had safely returned to North Korea.
Xi “is exerting a lot of influence from behind the scenes,” said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“I expect they will talk about the path going forward and where priorities should lie,” Glaser said. Those priorities, from China’s perspective, would be to ensure that Beijing is included in any peace treaty talks and in creating an environment on the Korean Peninsula that will make it unnecessary for U.S. troops to remain.
Kim is likely hoping to get China’s support for relief from punishing U.N. sanctions.
At a regularly scheduled briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Tuesday that Beijing supported Russia’s calls last week for unilateral sanctions on North Korea — ones that aren’t imposed within the United Nations framework — to be canceled immediately.
“China always stands against the so-called unilateral sanctions outside the Security Council framework. This position is very clear and we believe sanctions themselves are not the end,” Geng said.
While Beijing and Moscow have supported U.N. restrictions, they bristle at Washington imposing sanctions on its own to pressure North Korea.
Trump’s surprise announcement in Singapore of a U.S. suspension of military drills with its South Korean ally fulfills a goal long pursued by North Korea and its primary backers China and Russia. That move is seen as potentially weakening defenses and diplomacy among America’s Asian allies, while bolstering China and Russia.
The U.S. has stationed combat troops in South Korea since the Korean War, in which China fought on North Korea’s side and which ended in 1953 with an armistice and no peace treaty.
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said Kim’s visit to China highlights the “constructive role” Beijing could play in disarming North Korea.
Ministry spokesman Noh Kyu-duk also downplayed concerns that improving relations between China and North Korea could result in loosened Chinese sanctions against North Korea.
Cheng Xiaohe, an associate professor at Renmin University’s School of International Studies in Beijing, said it was significant that Chinese state broadcaster CCTV announced Kim’s visit before his return home.
“This is an improvement. This shows that China is moving toward a healthier and more normal direction in relations with North Korea,” Cheng said. He added that the frequency of Kim’s visits — three so far this year — was “unprecedented.”
Yang Mu-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said Kim’s visits show the recent chill in the two countries’ ties over Kim’s development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles had fully lifted.
“I believe that indicates that the blood alliance between the North and China has been completely restored,” Yang said.
Washington has long pressed Beijing to use its influence to compel North Korea into negotiations, but Kim’s visit comes as a dispute over the large trade imbalance between China and the U.S. has been escalating, moving them closer to a potential trade war.
That could make it less attractive for China to use its influence over North Korea to help the U.S. achieve its objectives of denuclearization.
“The potential comprehensive trade war will make the cooperation between China and U.S. in North Korea’s nuclear issue more complicated,” Cheng said. “There will be a big question mark over whether China and the U.S. will continue this cooperation.”