Asia Pacific / Politics

In Pyongyang, Xi and Kim discuss nukes as speculation grows over possible message to Trump

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Thursday kicked off his first visit to Pyongyang as president, meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, telling him that the international community expects the U.S. and North to restart nuclear talks in efforts to produce a tangible outcome.

Xi and Kim sat down for talks in the afternoon following Xi’s arrival in Pyongyang — the first visit by a Chinese president in 14 years — earlier Thursday amid speculation that Kim may ask Xi to deliver a message on denuclearization to U.S. President Donald Trump at next week’s Group of 20 summit in Osaka.

At their talks, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV quoted Xi as saying the situation on the Korean Peninsula “concerns the peace and stability of the region.”

“In the past year, the peninsular issue has seen bright prospects for resolution through dialogue and won the recognition and expectations of the international community,” Xi said, apparently referring to meetings between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore and Vietnam that failed to produce tangible results.

Xi also said China backs a political resolution for issues on the Korean Peninsula, and remains willing to do what it can to address North Korea’s “reasonable security and development concerns.”

Kim said his country had taken “many positive measures” over the past year, but had not received an “active response from the relevant party,” an apparent reference to the United States. He was quoted as telling Xi that the North would “like to remain patient, but hopes the relevant party will meet it halfway to explore ways to resolve tensions and produce results.”

Xi’s visit comes amid speculation that Kim may ask the Chinese leader to deliver a message on denuclearization to Trump at next week’s Group of 20 summit in Osaka.

The Chinese president and his wife, first lady Peng Liyuan, were greeted on arrival at Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport by Kim and his wife, first lady Ri Sol-ju, China’s state-run People’s Daily newspaper reported. Some 10,000 North Koreans waved flowers and chanted welcome slogans at the airport, it said. Xi was accompanied by senior officials, including top diplomat Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

Xi and Kim then reviewed an honor guard and rode in a roofless limousine for the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, the mausoleum commemorating the North’s former leaders, video showed.

Xi was scheduled to spend another day in the North Korean capital on Friday, and will return home later in the day.

Authorities have reportedly imposed tight control on coverage of the visit. International journalists in Pyongyang were told they would not be able to cover it, while foreign media organizations that were initially invited to attend were unable to obtain visas, according to media reports.

The leaders’ meeting, their fifth since March last year, was expected to focus on continuing to improve ties that had hit fresh lows after China backed crushing sanctions against the North over its nuclear weapons program in 2016 and 2017. Beijing has recently called for those measures to be eased.

In their talks, the pair were likely to find a common challenge to rally around: Trump.

China has remained embroiled in a trade war with the U.S. that has grown increasingly acrimonious over the past several months, while nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang have been deadlocked since the second Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi collapsed without a deal in February due to major differences over the scope of the North’s denuclearization and potential sanctions relief by the United States.

But China’s official Xinhua News Agency said in a commentary published earlier Thursday that “hope remains alive and kicking” for resolving the nuclear standoff, while the Rodong Sinmun, the North’s ruling party mouthpiece, hailed the Chinese leader’s trip.

“Xi Jinping’s visit to the DPRK despite the urgent and important tasks due to the complicated international relations vividly shows that the Chinese party and government are placing great importance on the DPRK-China friendship,” the Rodong Sinmun said.

In a rare opinion piece by a foreign leader published a day earlier in the paper, Xi hailed the “irreplaceable” friendship between his country and the North and offered a “grand plan” to bring permanent stability to East Asia.

He also vowed that Beijing would play an active role in “strengthening communication and coordination with North Korea and other relevant parties” to push forward negotiations on the Korean Peninsula.

Some observers believe the Kim-Xi meeting could result in a quid quo pro for both parties, with Kim getting Xi to deliver a denuclearization offer to Trump and the Chinese leader amassing some leverage over the U.S. leader during talks that are likely to focus on trade and the North’s nuclear weapons at their meeting on the sidelines of next week’s G20 summit.

The Chinese side, in its state-run media, has denied Xi was using the Pyongyang visit to bolster its case at that meeting.

“There are some Americans who always suspect that China is playing the North Korea card amid the trade war. They are too sensitive and measuring others on their own terms,” the hawkish Global Times newspaper wrote in an editorial published after Xi arrived in Pyongyang.

“The friendship between China and North Korea is built upon long-term strategic interests of both sides, rather than on a calculation to solve one specific problem.”

Still, former Deputy Ambassador to the United Kingdom Thae Yong Ho, one of the highest-ranking North Korean diplomats to defect in years, said Thursday that Kim and Xi were likely to work hand-in-hand toward their respective goals, with Kim possibly offering some kind of compromise on his country’s nuclear facilities to set up a third summit with Trump.

The White House has repeatedly said that Pyongyang must abandon its nuclear weapons program before international sanctions are lifted. The North, however, is seeking an incremental approach in which a step toward its denuclearization would be matched by a concession from the U.S., namely eased economic sanctions.

China backs what it calls a “suspension for suspension” proposal. Xinhua said both sides “need to have reasonable expectations and refrain from imposing unilateral and unrealistic demands.”

Experts say Xi will likely endorse North Korea’s calls for an incremental disarmament process.

Thae told a news conference in Tokyo on Thursday that Kim may ask Xi to act “as a kind of mediator at the G20” to convey directly to Trump a fresh offer on his nuclear weapons program, a demand that the U.S. president himself said he has insisted on — the closure of five uranium enrichment sites believed to exist in the North.

Trump said in an interview in May that Kim had wanted to remove only one or two of the five nuclear sites during their Hanoi summit, a dealbreaker for the U.S. president.

“Kim Jong Un may open or he may abandon those five nuclear uranium enrichment facilities,” Thae said. “And if President Trump accepts this new offer from Kim Jong Un and makes any kind of deal, then Kim Jong Un can avoid the discussion of already-made nuclear missiles.”

Such an agreement, which would let the North keep its current arsenal, would eventually confer upon the country de facto, if not outright status as a nuclear power, he said.

“If Kim Jong Un succeeds in convincing President Trump to make a deal on past North Korean nuclear facilities, and succeeds in keeping the current nuclear missiles (he possesses) for another few years, then it would mean … that North Korea can be accepted as a new nuclear state in this region,” Thae said.

“That is the basic, I think, game plan for North Korea,” he added.