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From Pariah to Pawn
Trump helped make Kim Jong Un a global statesman. Now China is using him to antagonize the United States.
During his first five years in power, Chinese President Xi Jinping met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un precisely zero times. His administration frequently condemned North Korea’s nuclear tests and voted for tougher United Nations Security Council sanctions in cooperation with the United States.
The distaste was mutual. North Korea’s state news agency lashed out at China’s “absurd and reckless remarks” over its nuclear program and threatened “grave consequences” should ties deteriorate further. The Kim regime chose Chinese New Year’s Eve in 2016, a time when even senior cadres might expect to be at home with their families, to launch a satellite, one month after conducting a nuclear bomb test. In 2017, North Korea detonated another device just hours before Xi was due to address a major international summit in southern China.
Of course, China was still North Korea’s most important trading partner by far, but the relationship once described by Mao Zedong as being as close as “lips and teeth” was coming to resemble a grimace. Xi didn’t want Kim to be overthrown, but he also didn’t want to be photographed at his side.
And then, in March 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that he would meet the North Korean leader. Within the month, Kim had boarded his armored train to go to Beijing for an inaugural meeting with Xi. It was the first time he had left the country since becoming leader, and it was the start of a concerted diplomatic campaign.
In the 15 months since, Xi and Kim have met three more times in China, each encounter meticulously documented and promoted by their respective propaganda teams. Now Xi is heading the other way, becoming the first Chinese leader to travel to North Korea in more than a decade. The meeting, which will take place on June 20 and 21, is being called a state visit—another first—conferring further legitimacy on the Kim regime.
How the times, and the surrounding politics, have changed.
Kim is no longer a pariah. He is still a ruthless dictator with nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons—and no compunction about ordering family members put to death. But these days, he also likes to be seen as a statesman. He has met the president of the United States twice now; the two men sat down in Hanoi and Singapore as equals, as the Kim family had long told the North Korean people becoming a nuclear state would enable them to do. When the supreme leader traveled to Russia in April, he was welcomed with an honor guard and a lavish banquet hosted by his counterpart, President Vladimir Putin.
Increasingly, Kim is someone the leaders of the major global powers want to show they have a relationship with, and perhaps some influence over, rather than going out of their way to avoid. By agreeing to meet the North Korean leader, Trump also helped to normalize him, signaling that the young despot was someone who had to be dealt with, like it or not. In turn, while the days of “lips and teeth” may be over, so too are the years of the cold-shoulder treatment. As Kim ventures out into the world, Xi will want to demonstrate that all roads back into North Korea still go through him, and that China’s interests cannot be ignored in any future negotiations.
Those interests include a nuclear-free North Korea, but not at any cost, and certainly not on the Trump administration’s timetable or terms. China’s top priority for the Korean Peninsula remains stability—the avoidance of conflict and regime collapse.
And as long as there is a veneer of progress to ward off the threat of U.S. military action (say, a continued lull in testing and a commitment to denuclearization at some unspecified future point) there is really no incentive for Beijing to push for more. That’s because of another major geopolitical shift—this one in the relationship between China and the United States.
Back in 2017, at the height of North Korea’s missile tests—and U.S. threats of “fire and fury”—Trump repeatedly praised Xi on Twitter. When Trump arrived in Beijing that year, he told the Chinese president that he was a “very special man” and that it was previous U.S. presidents, not China, who were at fault for the yawning trade deficit.
Now, Xi finds himself facing an intensifying trade war with the United States as well as a year of sensitive political anniversaries and mass protests on the streets of Hong Kong. As hopes of a trade deal with Washington fade, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has begun preparing the country for a period of protracted economic pain by framing the contest as the latest U.S. effort at containment. And that is where Kim comes back in.
In recent weeks, in reports on the trade dispute, CCP-controlled newspapers and television channels have begun openly referencing the Korean War—or the war to “Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea” as the conflict is known there. They’ve gone so far as airing Mao-era Korean War movies in prime-time evening slots, including the Battle on Shangganling Mountain, Surprise Attack, and Heroic Sons and Daughters, which depict brave Chinese supposedly volunteer forces battling against U.S. imperialist aggressors.
Explaining the sudden schedule changes, CCTV-6, the main state movie channel, said it was “echoing the present times using the art form of film.” A front-page commentary in the Central Party School’s newspaper invoked the CCP’s “spirit of not being afraid of pressure, daring to fight and being good at fighting” during the conflict. China’s Ministry of Commerce has accused the United States of “bullying behavior,” drawing on a narrative that has been drilled into Chinese schoolchildren since the 1990s.
As children are taught, the country suffered a so-called century of humiliation beginning with the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century. The country was ravaged by conflict, torn apart by bullying foreign powers, and helpless to defend itself under weak and corrupt leaders. Only the defeat of Japan in World War II and the Communist Party’s victory in the subsequent civil war in 1949 finally brought the humiliation to an end. Mao, declaring the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, said that the Chinese people had “stood up.”
Having stood up, they then rushed to the defense of their socialist neighbor, North Korea, so the official story goes, to fight the mighty U.S. imperialists to a draw. Negotiations on the armistice agreement took a further two years, all the while grinding trench warfare still going on, after the conflict had reached its bloody stalemate. That’s a point the CCP is now keen to emphasize as it signals its stomach for a drawn-out economic conflict if it comes to that.
Against this backdrop, North Korea has become politically useful once again. It is not just a geographical buffer state and the place U.S. presidential dreams of denuclearization go to die, but also a reminder of China’s wartime past and the CCP’s consequent, if self-proclaimed, legitimacy to rule.
Underlining such symbolism, Xi and Kim are expected to tour the Sino-North Korean Friendship Tower in Pyongyang, a monument dedicated to the Chinese soldiers who died in the Korean War. It will be an opportunity to recall their shared history and shared interests today.
Standing next to Kim is no longer an embarrassment. The U.S. president has done it twice. And by publicly renewing China’s alliance with North Korea, Xi is reasserting himself as the key global player when it comes to dealing with Pyongyang. This is good news for Kim and his ongoing efforts to be seen as a respectable head of state. Less so for the Trump administration, or anyone who expects Kim to hand over his nuclear weapons anytime soon.