As Kim Jong Un spent his birthday in Beijing on Tuesday, the young North Korean leader was likely hoping to take home more than just a few gifts during his three-day visit to the Chinese capital.
Kim arrived by special train in Beijing on Tuesday morning for his fourth meeting in less than a year with Chinese President Xi Jinping as talks on plans for a second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump gather steam.
The North Korean leader, who Seoul says was born on Jan. 8, 1984 — though the North’s government hasn’t officially confirmed the date — met with Xi in China three times last year before and after holding summits with Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
With the visit, which runs through Thursday, Kim was adhering to a well-worn playbook that both he and his late father, Kim Jong Il, have employed. Both visited China and South Korea six years after inheriting power, with the elder Kim creating what Sung-Yoon Lee, a Korea expert at The Fletcher School at Tufts University in the U.S., characterized as ” a dramatic mood swing in Northeast Asia” — a plan Kim Jong Un appears set on emulating.
Experts say this trip to Beijing, Pyongyang’s sole major ally and its top economic lifeline as it continues to fend off crippling sanctions over its nuclear weapons and missile programs, will give the Chinese and North Korean sides a fresh chance to coordinate strategy ahead of the planned second Trump summit.
“It’s deja vu once again,” said Zhiqun Zhu, a political science professor at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. “Kim will coordinate his U.S. policy with Xi before talking to Trump, like he did before the June 2018 summit. As the second Trump-Kim meeting approaches, we can expect shuttle diplomacy between Pyongyang and Beijing. So one should not be surprised that Kim is visiting Beijing now.”
Whatever strategy they decide on, it is likely to include a concerted push by Beijing, Pyongyang and Moscow to convince Trump — and the international community — to relent on sanctions.
China and Russia, who both wield vetoes on the United Nations Security Council, have called for easing sanctions to reward Kim’s move last year to halt some weapons tests and dismantle several testing facilities.
“A meeting between Kim and Xi would signal their willingness to further strengthen China-North Korea ties,” said Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia and director of the China Power Project at Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. “Kim is likely keen to seek Beijing’s help to get sanctions eased.”
Trump has publicly taken a hard line against easing the measures, saying Sunday that sanctions will remain “in full force and effect” until the United States saw “very positive” results.
Behind the scenes, however, the White House has gradually taken a softer stance toward the North, with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence reportedly scrapping a planned speech last month that would have criticized the human rights abuses by the Kim regime — a cancellation that was due, at least in part, to concerns over angering or alienating Pyongyang and further derailing stalled denuclearization talks with Washington.
Trump’s own remarks Sunday, especially concerning what would qualify as “positive” results, may have even left open the possibility of a deal with the North.
But whether this amounts to a signal that the Trump administration is open to considering eased sanctions remains to be seen.
Kim’s visit also comes just over a week after the North Korean leader warned in a New Year’s speech that Pyongyang may change its approach to the nuclear talks if Washington persists with sanctions.
In his address, Kim urged the United States to take reciprocal measures in exchange for denuclearization steps the North Korean dictator has claimed his country has taken since last year.
“If the United States does not keep the promise it made in the eyes of the world, and out of miscalculation of our people’s patience, it attempts to unilaterally enforce something upon us and persists in imposing sanctions and pressure against our Republic, we may be compelled to find a new way for defending the sovereignty of the country and the supreme interests of the state,” Kim said.
Some observers believe that while it is tempting to interpret this “new way” as being a thinly veiled threat of more nuclear or missile tests, it could instead be an implicit warning that the North could further bolster its already improving ties with China if the U.S. fails to ante up.
“Kim’s confidence stems from the expectation of growing and reliable support by China,” Rudiger Frank, a professor of East Asian economy and society at the University of Vienna, wrote on the North Korea-watching 38 North blog on Jan. 2. “The three summits with Xi Jinping in 2018 seem to have made Kim Jong Un very optimistic.”
Frank said the protracted trade war between Beijing and Washington, among other issues, has created the impression among strategists in Pyongyang of a “Cold War 2.0 situation.”
“Like in the decades before the collapse of the Soviet Union, supporting smaller allies could again become a matter of principle for the Big Powers even if these allies step out of line occasionally,” he wrote.
He said that Kim could be banking on the belief that, in such a strategic setting, China would be willing to provide protection and economic support while abstaining from too massive direct interference.
“Forcing the U.S. out of Korea, and out of East Asia, is more important to Beijing than reigning in … a self-confident or even provocative North Korea,” he wrote.
In this sense, Kim’s threat may not be a hint at more nuclear tests, “but rather as a message to Donald Trump: You are not our only option for security and economic development. If you refuse to be cooperative, we will ignore you and turn to China. Oh, and we will take South Korea along,” he added.
Bucknell’s Zhu interpreted Kim’s New Year’s message similarly.
“I think it more likely means the U.S. is not the only option, and the North can always rely on China as a counterbalance,” he said. “North Korea has historically been skillful in playing big powers against each other. Kim will take advantage of the trade and other disputes between the U.S. and China, he is also going to take advantage of Trump’s domestic troubles and squeeze compromise from Trump in the next meeting.”
Still, the North Korean leader is already refraining from putting all of his eggs in one basket, deftly appealing to outside powers in his New Year’s speech by noting that, despite the stalled talks with the U.S., he is willing to meet Trump again at any time to produce results “welcomed by the international community.”
According to The Fletcher School’s Lee, the timing of Kim’s meeting with Xi signals more than just a mere chance to coordinate with Beijing — it’s part of a long-running plan to rehabilitate his public profile and more.
“By further shaping his image as outgoing and reasonable, Kim will continue to ride the momentum and be immune from any aggressive financial measures,” Lee said.
“The ‘new way,’ in my view, does not denote leaning on one side, i.e., China,” he added. “That would not only not be new, it would be a time-tested old business model. It also doesn’t mean more ‘conventional’ ICBM and nuclear tests, which would not be ‘new.'”
His speech “does not merely mean playing defense,” Lee said.
“Supreme interests of the state,” he added, quoting Kim’s speech, “means fulfilling the great national task,” the state mission of the North: “Unify Korea under Kim and his ruling Workers’ Party of Korea.”