Xi and Kim’s Marriage of Convenience

The Chinese president is briefed on the Singapore summit during the North Korean leader’s third state visit.

A television broadcast of a meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Seoul, South Korea on March 28.  (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
A television broadcast of a meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Seoul, South Korea on March 28. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is on the move again. One week after his historic summit with U.S. President Donald Trump, Kim traveled to China for his third meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in less than three months.

The June 19 visit came after what was widely seen as a diplomatic win for both North Korea and China in Singapore, where Trump agreed to suspend military exercises with South Korea in exchange for the vague promise of “complete denuclearization” on the Korean Peninsula. That has raised suspicions that North Korea might be acting as a cat’s-paw for China. But the reality is very different. Kim’s and Xi’s interests might be aligned for the moment, but Beijing’s influence in Pyongyang is situational at best.

Generations of Chinese and North Korean leaders forged and solidified a strategic alliance out of necessity, a tradition that the current North Korean ruler neglected to reinforce during his first six years. But, it’s true that ties between China and North Korea — or rather between Xi and Kim, both personalist strongmen setting the course for their countries — are undeniably strengthening after years of chilled relations that began after Kim inherited power in 2011. In fact, during his Tuesday meeting with Kim, Xi reaffirmed his support for “consolidating and developing” China’s relationship with North Korea “no matter how the international and regional situations change.”

But Andrei Lankov, one of the world’s leading Korea experts and the director of the Korea Risk Group, said that there’s no love lost between the two powers. “Let’s not have illusions. China and North Korea don’t see each other with any kind of mutual sympathy. There are zero warm feelings between the two countries,” Lankov said. “China is seen as a potential threat, almost as much as the U.S. is. The Chinese see North Korea as irrational, unreliable, ungovernable, highly dangerous.”

On the other side of the negotiating table, China holds two critical bargaining chips over North Korea: mutual defense and economic sanctions. China is North Korea’s only official military ally — and vice versa, thanks to the 1961 Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty.

China is not only the only country in the world that has a mutual defense treaty with North Korea, but also the key implementer of international sanctions. Since China alone accounts for more than 90 percent of North Korea’s trade, how strictly it wants to enforce economic sanctions at the border will play a crucial role in denuclearization talks.

Xi hasn’t been afraid to get tough with Pyongyang. Following North Korea’s two intercontinental ballistic missile launches last July, China unprecedentedly joined with the United States and voted in favor of new United Nations Security Council sanctions against Pyongyang. Once China — North Korea’s economic lifeline for decades — doubled down on trade sanctions, Kim felt pressured to return to the negotiating table and engaged in a flurry of diplomatic outreaches this spring, said Patricia Kim, a nuclear security fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Prior to his execution in 2013, Kim’s uncle and quasi-regent, Jang Song Thaek, acted as a conduit between China and North Korea, shuttling back and forth in an effort to attract Chinese investors to special economic zones. Jang was initially a powerful advisor to Kim Jong Un after Kim’s father’s death in late 2011, taking the lead on trade negotiations with China and pushing for economic revitalization within North Korea. As Kim Jong Il’s brother-in-law, Jang also headed one of the largest-ever North Korean delegations to Beijing.

But since Jang’s highly publicized execution as part of Kim’s consolidation of power, no one has stepped up to fill the role he played as the leader’s point person in communicating with China.

Yet Lankov argued that even at the peak of Jang’s power, he couldn’t be described a pro-China lobbyist. People like Jang were willing to promote cordial relations with China only insofar as they reaped financial gains from Chinese investment, Lankov added, rather than having the best interest of North Korea’s giant neighbor at heart.

Jang, who played a leading role in building the Rason special economic zone, personally profited from North Korea’s coal business with China, by far the country’s biggest patron. But his building up of an independent power base and his eagerness to seek foreign support dictated his downfall. Jang’s official indictment, although it avoided explicitly mentioning China, accused him of undercutting the price of coal and selling land in Rason to pay off personal debt.

That has scared off others, too. According to Lankov, most individuals involved in business deals with China have been killed or sent into exile in the past five years, and any pro-Chinese interest groups have been erased from Pyongyang. “High-level officials would rather lose highly lucrative trade deals than be tortured to death,” Lankov said.

By cutting out the middlemen in their diplomatic relationship, Kim now firmly holds control over negotiations with China. And he holds one powerful form of leverage over Xi: stability on the Korean Peninsula.

China, hoping to maintain strategic control, is fearful of volatile changes in the region, whether it be an internal regime collapse or a nuclear escalation with South Korea and the United States. According to Abigail Grace, a research associate at the Center for a New American Security, China is anxious at the prospect of a unified Korean Peninsula, which would allow U.S. troops to advance to the Chinese border. In order to make sure its own interests are on the table, China insists on multilateral discussions like the six-party talks, Grace added.

Kim, the CFR fellow, said that the possibility of North Korea aligning itself with the United States or with South Korea is never far from Xi’s mind, and China is constantly wary of the North’s willingness to defy its requests to halt nuclear testing or other forms of provocation.

“There is a history of skepticism between the two sides and a history of tension,” she said. “They are partners of convenience.”

Amy Cheng is an editorial intern covering defense and security. Born and raised in Beijing, she spent the summer of 2017 interning for the New York Times on topics such as censorship regulations and Chinese investment overseas. She is a rising senior majoring in Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale University, where she currently serves as the online editor of the Yale Daily News. Twitter: @Amy_23_Cheng