Chinese and North Korean state media announced on Monday that Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping will visit North Korea this week to meet with dictator Kim Jong-un. It will be Xi’s first visit to North Korea and the first time China’s leader has made such a trip since Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao visited Pyongyang in 2005.
China’s CCTV said Xi will arrive in North Korea on Thursday, June 20, and depart on Friday, June 21. The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) confirmed the visit, but published no further details.
A spokesman for the Chinese Communist Party said Xi accepted a personal invitation from Kim to visit, possibly issued when the two met in Beijing in January.
“I hope that this visit will contribute to the early resumption of talks on the complete denuclearisation of and the establishment of permanent peace on the Korean peninsula,” a spokeswoman for South Korean President Moon Jae-in said upon learning of Xi’s trip.
A North Korea analyst in Beijing named Zhang Liangui gave the South China Morning Post a somewhat less optimistic forecast for Xi’s trip to North Korea, suggesting it will be more focused on coordinating China and North Korea’s hostile response to U.S. trade policy. Zhang said:
Diplomatically, Xi’s visit to Pyongyang is a reciprocal trip given that Kim Jong-un has paid four visits to China since March 2018.
But considering the current international situation and especially the escalating trade war between Beijing and Washington, the trip is obviously an important geopolitical move.
In the lead-up to the meeting between Xi and Trump at the G20, both sides are trying to find a way out. Apart from the trade tensions, they will also touch on other important bilateral and regional issues, with defusing tensions on North Korea high on their agenda.
Zhang was, however, intriguingly downbeat on the possibility of China breaking U.N. sanctions against North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. According to Zhang:
While it’s all right for China to provide some food and medical assistance out of humanitarian concern, China should abide by the existing UN sanctions regime and refuse to go further.
One of the main lessons we’ve learned from the failure to block Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions is that North Korea will not voluntarily denuclearise and we must not pin our hopes solely on diplomacy, negotiations, or even compensating Pyongyang for sanctions.
Xi’s visit is timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of China opening formal diplomatic relations with North Korea and comes only a week before the beginning of the 2019 G20 summit in Osaka, Japan. One of the biggest questions hanging over the G20 summit is whether Xi will meet with U.S. President Donald Trump on the sidelines to discuss the ongoing trade war.
The implication behind Chinese analysts’ predictions for the Xi-Kim meeting in North Korea is that China could be preparing some sort of grand bargain to offer President Trump, breaking up the impasse in nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang in exchange for trade concessions to Beijing. Xi may hope Trump will be particularly interested in such an offer because it would represent a major diplomatic victory on the Korean peninsula for Trump just as the 2020 U.S. presidential election heats up.
“Xi might want to strengthen Beijing’s position as a messenger – or a mediator – to accelerate the denuclearisation process ahead of his meeting with Trump so he will have some diplomatic cards to play,” South Korean professor of North Korean studies Boo Seung-chan told the SCMP.
The significance of the event was unclear as of Monday afternoon, but shortly after Xi’s trip to North Korea was announced, Chinese seismologists detected a small earthquake consistent with a powerful explosion near the China-North Korea border. The tremor was far smaller than the aftershock from North Korea’s last underground nuclear test.