WASHINGTON - In the aftershock of the Trump-Kim mini-summit in the Demiltarized Zone, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that other important players, particularly Chinese President Xi Jinping, were warily eyeing the proceedings from afar. Indeed, Chinese actions in the days immediately preceding the historic DMZ handshake indicate some foreknowledge, or at least prudent calculation, of possible new momentum in the U.S.-North Korea relationship.
China’s relationship with North Korea was said to be “as close as lips and teeth” by Chinese leader Mao Zedong. But over the years the teeth have occasionally bitten the lips — as when North Korean leader Kim Jong Un purged Chinese-leaning elements, including his own uncle, among his leadership after taking power in 2011, or when China acquiesced to robust United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea.
It is therefore notable that Xi finally traveled to Pyongyang on short notice to meet with Kim — the first visit by a Chinese leader to North Korea in 14 years. While Xi did meet with Kim four times in China last year, the Chinese president’s two-day visit to North Korea was his first since taking power in 2012. (Xi previously visited Pyongyang in 2008 when he was China’s vice president and Kim Jong Il ruled North Korea.)
The last Chinese president to visit Pyongyang was Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, who was hosted by Kim Jong Il in October 2005 for a three-day trip described as an “official goodwill” visit. This time, however, Kim Jong Un pulled out all the stops for Xi, who was accorded a full state visit and was escorted to virtually every major shrine to the Kim dynasty. That said, the Chinese apparently drew the line at celebrating the June 25 anniversary of North Korea’s launching the Korean War in 1950: Xi left Pyongyang a mere several days before the occasion.
Speculation was rife that the timing of the visit meant Xi intended to leverage his country’s relationship with North Korea to gain advantage in trade discussions with U.S. President Donald Trump on the margins of the Group of 20 summit in Osaka. Trump himself previously suggested that he would entertain some linkage between U.S.-China trade issues and Chinese assistance with North Korea. However, the Chinese have indicated that they intend to compartmentalize North Korean issues, rather than leveraging them in other areas, and to date they appear to be sticking with that commitment.
Rather, the haste with which Xi’s visit appears to have been arranged seems linked not to the G20, the timing of which may have been entirely incidental, but rather the emerging signs that North Korea is at long last willing to engage in serious dialogue with the United States on the nuclear issue.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in seems to have overstated the case when he asserted that the U.S. and North Korea had actually begun negotiating, given that the North has yet even to name a new negotiating counterpart for U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun.
Irrespective, these indications of North Korean willingness to resume dialogue were evidently tangible enough for China to seize the moment and reassert its role in the process — and not a moment too soon from Beijing’s perspective, given the rapid succession of events leading to the DMZ handshake.
The Chinese attempted to utilize Xi’s visit to reinvigorate China’s relationship with North Korea and to restore some of China’s influence over North Korea’s nuclear calculus. The day before his arrival in Pyongyang, setting the tone for his visit, Xi authored a commentary for the front page of North Korea’s Rodong Shinmun newspaper (as well as Xinhua) applauding the “correct decision of Chairman Kim” for the “general trend of peaceful dialogue on the peninsula.”
Xi said “political settlement of the peninsula is facing a rare historical opportunity,” adding that “China is willing to work together with North Korean comrades to achieve a long-term plan for long-term stability in the region.”
Hinting at the economic benefits to North Korea of doing so, Xi said, “Advancing the political settlement process on the peninsula and maintaining peace and stability on the peninsula are in line with the respective development needs of the two countries and common interests of the two peoples.” (Some media inaccurately reported that this commentary was virtually unique, but it should be noted that the Rodong Sinmun also published editorials by former Chinese leaders Jiang Zemin and Hu for their respective Pyongyang visits in 2001 and 2005.)
Adding to the weight of evidence that the two leaders discussed economic issues — including sanctions and aid — is the fact that Xi was accompanied by his minister of commerce and national development and reform commission director, among others. Moreover, this would be in keeping with the statement in Moscow last October by the Chinese, Russian and North Korean deputy foreign ministers calling on the U.N. Security Council to “adjust” the current sanctions against Pyongyang. It should be noted that food aid and other humanitarian assistance is not subject to U.N. sanctions, and the Chinese would have a free hand in supporting North Korea in this manner.
While the Chinese have not publicly briefed on whatever economic issues Xi discussed with Kim, this does not necessarily mean aid was not pledged. Rather, it can safely be assumed that the Chinese would prefer to avoid any controversy that might be stirred by revealing Chinese provision of any kind of assistance to North Korea, legitimate or otherwise.
Signs are promising that the DMZ handshake may lead to more concrete, tangible measures by North Korea — starting with Pyongyang naming a new counterpart for special envoy Biegun, followed by serious efforts to engage the U.S. at working level.
While Pyongyang has exerted strenuous efforts to retain a degree of independence from Beijing, and may be seriously interested in breaking out from its diplomatic isolation, the fact remains that North Korea is highly dependent on its economic ties to China. It is therefore difficult to imagine a scenario where North Korea reaches an agreement with the U.S. that China opposes.
While in Pyongyang, Xi will likely have reassured Kim that China will continue to support North Korea’s security and — to the extent possible, given sanctions — its economic development. Xi may well have nudged Kim to the nuclear negotiating table. However, given China’s track record of prioritizing stability and the political status quo on the Korean Peninsula over denuclearization, Xi involving himself more vigorously behind the scenes may prove to be a drag on the nuclear negotiations in the longer term.
It may take another handshake — one between Xi and Trump, if only in the abstract — to seal a nuclear deal between the U.S. and North Korea.
Thomas Cynkin,a former U.S. charge d’affaires to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, is vice president of the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security.