North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un made his fourth known trip to China on Monday at the invitation of Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping. Kim made the journey by train, as is his habit, bringing most of the top North Korean Communist Party officials and his wife Ri Sol-ju along for the four-day excursion.
The visit coincides with what is believed to be Kim’s 36th birthday and follows a 2018 filled with unprecedented travel for the young dictator.
North Korea’s KCNA was deeply moved by the “warmth” of Kim’s farewell to the remaining Communist Party officials as he boarded the train to Beijing, evoking the most emotional railroad station farewell since the golden age of Hollywood:
[Kim Jong-un] was warmly seen off by leading officials of the Party, government and armed forces organs at the railway station.
He said good-bye to the officials before boarding the private train.
The officials warmly saw Kim Jong Un off, wholeheartedly wishing him good successes in his visit to China and a safe trip.
A swarm of security personnel reportedly converged on Beijing’s North Railway Station before the arrival of Kim’s train, a 25-car armored behemoth with blacked-out windows, and a long motorcade escorted by motorcycles departed soon thereafter. Kim’s fourth visit was significantly more public than his previous three trips, with unusual open announcements from both the Chinese and North Korean governments.
South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo speculated Xi wishes to consult with Kim before the North Korean dictator sits down for his second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump, much as the Chinese and North Korean leaders met before and after the first Trump-Kim meeting. A likely topic of conversation would be Kim’s desire for Chinese support in breaking tough international sanctions against North Korea. Analysts expect Kim will soon seek a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin to pursue a similar agenda.
President Trump stated on Sunday that the United States is “negotiating a location” for his second summit with Kim. White House teams have scouted several possible venues in Asia, as well as Hawaii, but a tentative date for meeting has not been announced yet.
Bloomberg News optimistically took Kim’s meeting with Xi as a sign “negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear arsenal may be regaining momentum after months without high-level diplomatic meetings.”
The office of South Korean President Moon Jae-in was likewise hopeful. Moon has expressed hopes for another meeting with Kim soon, ideally held in Seoul to fulfill Kim’s promise to pay a historic visit to the South Korean capital.
“The government expects that summit and high-level exchanges between the North and China, including a meeting between Chairman Kim Jong-un and President Xi Jinping, will be able to contribute to the complete denuclearization and establishment of permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula,” South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said at a press conference on Tuesday.
On the other hand, Bloomberg suggested Kim might be “building closer ties with China” after a few years of tension because he wants an alternative to further denuclearization talks with the United States.
China’s state-run Global Times indicated Xi would like the United States to ponder how much influence Beijing has in Pyongyang as the next stage in the U.S.-China trade war begins:
It is noted that Kim’s fourth visit occurs as China is negotiating trade with the US in Beijing. Is China taking advantage of Kim to influence the negotiations? It can be said for sure that there are more Americans than Chinese thinking this way. Few serious strategic scholars in China would deem this likely.
More Chinese care about Kim’s New Year speech in which he reiterated North Korea’s desire to develop its economy and improve its people’s livelihood. It is believed that Pyongyang’s plan will affect the country’s attitude toward the rest of the world.
It is hoped that the US and South Korea can accurately understand the constructive significance of amicable China-North Korea ties to push ahead with denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. What Pyongyang lacks most is confidence in its national security. A close China-North Korea relationship is its largest source of a sense of security from the international community. It is almost impossible to promote denuclearization peacefully without China’s support and encouragement.
Backing up denuclearization is China’s long-standing and firm stance, which touches upon China’s core interests. Beijing will never sacrifice its national interests for short-term geopolitical needs.
The Global Times concluded that Beijing would like to see “warming ties between Washington and Pyongyang with an agreement on a road map for denuclearization,” but then shrugged and said it was entirely up to Washington to forge such an agreement by convincing Pyongyang to trust the Americans, and then shrugged again and admitted the Trump administration has exceeded all expectations by bringing an end to “nuclear tests, missile tests, and extreme threats” on the Korean Peninsula.
The editorial is not exactly the bold global leadership Xi Jinping’s China boasts of delivering, but it’s a sterling example of a carefully hedged geopolitical bet.
Elsewhere at the Global Times, 2019 was touted as a pivotal year for North Korea, on par with China’s establishment of formal diplomatic ties with the United States in 1979.
This historic opening was ostensibly made possible in North Korea’s faith that China will protect its interests, a subtle allusion to North Korea’s insistence that it needs a nuclear arsenal to avoid regime change at the hands of interventionist Western powers appalled by its torture chambers and oppressed population.
The thinking in Chinese circles appears to be that Beijing’s protection and the promise of economic engagement can make regime change unthinkable and give Kim the confidence to set aside his nuclear weapons. China clearly anticipates receiving a privileged stake in North Korea, Inc. when it opens for business after sanctions are eased, an outcome U.S. policymakers will doubtless see as preferable to all-out war on the Korean Peninsula or a nuclear holocaust.
Whether North Korea is ready to accept that outcome boils down to whether Kim is truly ready to do business with first China, then South Korea, and then the wider world. That is probably the determination Xi Jinping wishes to make during Kim’s latest trip to Beijing.