Kim Jong-un’s secret visit to Beijing: A dress rehearsal for the planned meeting
Beijing’s diplomatic quarters were clouded by speculations and surprise accompanied by what experts described as a strange, highly mysterious, visit by the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
To anyone closely following the North Korean issue, prospects of this abruptly planned visit of Kim to Beijing including a meeting with Xi raises questions on what North Korea is planning to signal, a sudden unforeseen surge of diplomacy after years of provoking nuclear threats on bombing the U.S territories interspersed by potential missile tests. Talks are scheduled first with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea in April and later with President Trump, perhaps in May.
According to various sources, Kim did his schooling in Switzerland near Bern, he had never travelled abroad since becoming the North Korea’s leader in 2011 after his father’s death. Nor he has never met any head of state or leader so far.
For China, meeting with their strategic neighbour makes certain that Beijing will not be sidelined during the talks or any deal struck between the U.S – North Korea – South Korea talks. Considering the history of China’s role in Korean Peninsula, Beijing doesn’t want to be a mere bystander in the planned trilateral talks.
Xinhua, the official state news agency of China reported that Kim said: “It is our consistent stand to be committed to denuclearization on the peninsula.”
KCNA, the North Korean state media said Xi had accepted “with pleasure” an invitation to visit North Korea on a yet-to-be-announced date.
Kim’s Beijing visit gives a strong position in the upcoming planned meeting with Trump, said Wang Peng, a North Korea expert at the Charhar Institute in Beijing.
“North Korea is seeking assurances,” he added. “They want to quickly mend ties with China so that they have more leeway with the United States and they have more confidence in a good outcome.”
At the invitation of Xi Jinping, Kim Jong Un paid an unofficial visit to China from March 25 to 28 pic.twitter.com/OG9695uZ6F
— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) March 28, 2018
“At the end of the day, China’s got huge interests and it was not comfortable not being at the table,” said Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center in Beijing and a White House representative to the Six-Party Talks from 2007-2009.
“Kim Jong Un’s first meeting with a head of state was with the Chinese president, which frankly from the Chinese perspective is exactly the right thing,” he added.
With the recent high-level shuffles at the White House such as John Bolton, whose goal is not just denuclearization, but regime change, becoming the NSA, may have put some gravity on North Korea before the talks.
By his China visit, Kim is signalling Washington and Seoul that North Korea has other options and that they are not alone.
“China worries about being bypassed by North Korea and Trump,” says Shen Zhihua, a prominent historian in China. “China fears some collusion and fears its interests being disregarded.”
In the recent years, and after Kim coming to power, North Korea has become a thorn in China’s calculus. Beijing’s diplomatic quarter is worried that North Korean provocations could restart war-like hostilities with the US, which will make North Korea less reliant on Chinese shelter, Kim’s over-ambitious nuclear plans reduce Beijing’s options to handle North Korean policy.
For China, it wants to be seen as a warden of peace and stability in the region and also a viable player in global diplomacy as it competes with the US for influence in Asia.
China is North Korea’s closest ally, having fought with North Korea against the South during the Korean War, but relations have been strained as China has supported international sanctions against Pyongyang for its nuclear programme.
China accounts for more than 90% of North Korea’s overall trade and also provides food aid and energy assistance to Pyongyang. North Korea’s black market of electronics, fuel, and other goods comes mostly from China.
While China at times joins the west chorus of torpedoing North Korea with sanctions for its nuclear ambitions, it has also been cautious not to press North Korea hard enough to risk a regime collapse, which would eventually lead to the formation of a puppet government under an American security umbrella, a strain on China’s border.
North Korea has realized that it cannot survive a sustained economic sanction, and would need China’s backing for easing of trade restrictions. Now, Kim Jong-un could seek for a de-escalation of hardline sanctions as a concession for agreeing to talks.
North Korea is also paying the price from China’s denial to import North Korean coal, which is in accord with UN sanctions, and also to export to North Korea all the oil that it needs to fuel its ramshackle economy.
“He’s playing one superpower against another,” said Xia Yafeng, a historian at Long Island University.
If what Kim says is true, that he has nukes capable of striking their archenemy, the US, then it is time for him to focus on rebuilding, already in shamble, North Korean economy, and for which he needs the help of China.
*Shiva Shankar Pandian is the Editor at White House Watch – The Kootneeti. His areas of interest include the US-China & North Korean bilateral & Multilateral Relations
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team