Conspicuously missing from the North Korean diplomatic charm offensive that has marked 2018 has been overtures toward China. That oversight was rectified this week, as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made a two-day visit to Beijing. While engagement is to be applauded, we must remain clear-eyed about Pyongyang’s intentions: North Korea is looking for cracks in the united front that it faces. It seeks to exploit and widen them to maximize its bargaining position and minimize concessions in talks that will follow.
The trip was shrouded in secrecy, which is standard fare for North Korean leaders. When Kim Jong Il, the current leader’s father, traveled, official confirmation occurred only after he returned home. This time, speculation was triggered by reports of heavy security at the China-North Korea border and train delays in northeast China. Monday afternoon a train that resembled one used by Kim Jong Il pulled into the main Beijing train station. A long motorcade soon departed for the Chinese government guesthouse for visiting officials. The size of the motorcade and the security presence prompted speculation that the visitor was Kim Jong Un, or his sister, Kim Yo Jong, who had led the North Korean delegation to the Winter Games in Pyeongchang last month.
The train left Beijing on Tuesday evening, and only Wednesday did Chinese and North Korean state media confirm that Kim, along with his wife and top aides, had made an “unofficial” visit to China at the invitation of President Xi Jinping. The visit is thought to be Kim’s first trip abroad since he assumed the leadership of North Korea in 2011 upon his father’s death.
The official North Korean news agency KCNA reported that Kim called the visit a “solemn duty” and added that Kim said, “There is no question that my first foreign visit is to the Chinese capital.” Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, added that Xi replied, “We speak highly of this visit.” Substantively, Xinhua reported that Kim told Xi that the situation on the Korean Peninsula is “starting to get better,” and that North Korea is working to “ease tensions and put forward proposals for peace talks.” Kim added that “it is our consistent stand to be committed to denuclearization on the peninsula, in accordance with the will of late President Kim Il Sung and late General Secretary Kim Jong Il.”
The trip is important for a number of reasons, some obvious, others subtle. Kim’s comfort with leaving his country on the eve of several critical diplomatic overtures indicates that he has no doubts about his control of government. There has been speculation that he had refused to travel for fear of leaving that capital. Plainly, that is not true.
More important is the reassertion of China’s central role in regional diplomacy. Kim has agreed to meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in in April and U.S. President Donald Trump by May. Despite that seemingly full schedule, out of the blue he traveled to Beijing at the invitation of Xi. Xi has leaped to the top of the list of leaders with which Kim is talking and can now claim to have special insight into Pyongyang’s thinking. That is a powerful tool to parry U.S. demands in other areas — such as the newly imposed steel and aluminum tariffs — as well as remind Seoul that Beijing retains significant influence when dealing with the North.
This is an important development for Tokyo. It seems that only one country has been left out of North Korea’s charm offensive: Japan. Pyongyang has resisted Tokyo’s overtures and Japan has struggled to keep pace with developments. In a news conference Tuesday, Foreign Minister Taro Kono was pressed on the Kim visit to Beijing and he could only say that Japan was collecting and analyzing information, and that “we hope to receive a thorough explanation from the Chinese side regarding the developments.” Similarly, the Japanese government only learned that Trump would meet Kim after Trump had agreed to the invitation, prompting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to plan an April visit to Washington to meet Trump and discuss this development and ways to respond. Reportedly, Abe said that he could join a trilateral meeting with Trump and Kim, and he told Moon in a phone call that he is ready for direct talks with Kim.
While a meeting between Abe and Kim would be welcome, it is more likely that Pyongyang will hold off on courting Japan. Tokyo has taken the hardest line against the North and that irritates Kim. Every North Korean overture to another government in the region raises fears in Tokyo that it is being left out. Ignoring Japan increases insecurity here, encouraging doubts about U.S. priorities and the solidity of the alliance. Japan must not allow this strategy to succeed. Close consultations with allies and partners remain vital, to ensure that Japanese interests are protected, even if Tokyo is not at the negotiating table.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.