Did Kim’s Visit Just Hand China a Trump Card?
An unannounced visit boosted both Beijing’s and Pyongyang’s leverage in negotiations, but Washington still seems to have no plan.
Kim Jong Un shocked the world yet again this week, but this time it was with a slow train, not a ballistic missile. His armored train, a legacy of his plane-phobic father, chugged its way on an unannounced trip to Beijing, marking his first visit to a foreign country as the leader of North Korea.
Despite years of strained relations over the North’s nuclear ambitions, China and North Korea’s friendship was effusively praised during the visit. Kim said in Beijing that there was “no question” that his inaugural trip abroad should be to China, and that it was his “solemn duty” to “value and continue the DPRK-PRC relations through generations.” Beijing released a similarly warm statement highlighting the “profound revolutionary friendship” between China and North Korea.
The exchange demonstrated China and North Korea still view each other as necessary allies — and believe they can both benefit from a coordinated approach to the United States.
The visit strengthened Kim’s negotiating position in upcoming talks with Washington, decreasing the already remote prospect that the Trump administration could push Pyongyang to adopt Washington’s preferred timeline and approach for denuclearization. And by reaching out to Kim, Chinese President Xi Jinping reasserted Beijing’s desire to control regional developments after standing on the sidelines of the flurry of diplomatic activity between Washington, Seoul, and Pyongyang in recent weeks.
According to both Chinese and North Korean state media, Kim traveled to Beijing at the invitation of Xi to personally brief the Chinese president on recent developments on the Korean Peninsula. Despite his reportedly intense personal dislike of Kim, Xi rolled out the red carpet for the young North Korean leader, presumably to probe the latter’s intentions behind his recent diplomatic charm offensive — and to ensure Pyongyang would not cut a deal that would harm China’s interests in its upcoming talks with South Korea and the United States. The Chinese media also made sure to portray Xi as an elder statesman to Kim, airing footage of the younger leader studiously taking notes while Xi spoke.
Kim, too, had much to gain by accepting Xi’s invitation. First, he succeeded in getting Beijing to declare its opposition to any nonpeaceful means of resolving the nuclear crisis in case dialogue with the United States fails. According to the official summary of the visit released by Chinese state news agency Xinhua, the North Korean leader asked China to “jointly safeguard the trend of consultation and dialogue as well as peace and stability on the peninsula.” And Xi confirmed China’s intention to do so by using these same words. While this was just a restatement of China’s long-standing position, the public reaffirmation by Xi that China opposes military strikes on the Korean Peninsula was a diplomatic win for Pyongyang. Xi went as far as to stress that “no matter how the international and regional situation changes,” China would continue to maintain a strong relationship with North Korea.
According to Xinhua, while in Beijing, Kim called on the United States and South Korea to reciprocate North Korea’s efforts “with goodwill” and to take “progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace.” This is a likely sign that Kim was looking to enlist China’s support for his preferred approach to denuclearization, which most likely involves immediate sanctions relief and other rewards in exchange for incremental steps by North Korea. While it’s unclear how exactly Kim will play his hand in talks with U.S. President Donald Trump in May, Beijing will probably throw its weight behind a long, drawn-out process of denuclearization that Kim is likely to propose, given its preference for stability over speed.
With the unexpected reset between Beijing and Pyongyang, Washington faces an uphill battle on a few fronts. First, it will be difficult to sustain Chinese cooperation on the economic portion of the maximum pressure campaign. While Beijing has signed on to increasingly harsh sanctions in the last year, including banning North Korean coal exports, shutting down North Korean businesses and Chinese-North Korean joint ventures operating within China, and reducing North Korea’s oil imports, it cooperated largely to prevent the United States from turning to more extreme measures in the face of North Korean intransigence. Now that Kim has expressed his willingness to engage in negotiations, Beijing will most likely push for relaxing sanctions.
Second, with China’s backing, Kim will feel more empowered to push for his own timeline and version of denuclearization when talking with the United States. Most experts agree that North Korea has no intention of ever fully denuclearizing, while the Trump administration has insisted that Pyongyang must accept the complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement of its nuclear weapons program, and that “time is running out” to achieve this goal peacefully. With his strengthened relationship with Xi, Kim may feel emboldened to ask the United States and South Korea for more rewards in return for fewer concessions, given China’s agreement to stand by North Korea even if talks break down.
In order to ensure that China and South Korea do not begin to prematurely relax sanctions, which would reduce North Korea’s incentives to approach negotiations sincerely, Washington will need to hurry to secure their support in its own preferred approach. This will require laying out a realistic, step-by-step plan for denuclearization that starts with lower-bar items, such as a verified freeze on North Korea’s nuclear material production and missile development, in exchange for some sanctions relief. Putting forth a reasonable timeline and demands that Seoul and Beijing could not find objectionable will increase the chances that the two sides will coordinate their policies with Washington, not Pyongyang.
Thus far, the White House has yet to publicly indicate the direction it will take in the upcoming talks with North Korea. It’s unclear whether a plan exists at all given the recent personnel changes, glaring vacancies at the State Department, and the lack of a special envoy on North Korea. The ball is now in the United States’ court, and Trump will need to move swiftly and judiciously to strengthen his position and ensure key regional players are working with and not against him, before meeting with Kim Jong Un in May.