Kim Jong Un Strengthens His Hand While China Reminds The U.S. That It Remains A Player

After several days of speculation, it was confirmed that the leaders of North Korea and China had met in Beijing. This was meant as much for external consumption as it was the relationship between the two nations.

Kim Jong Un made his first trip outside North Korea since taking power in 2011 and, not surprisingly, it was a trip to Beijing:

BEIJING — North Korea’s enigmatic young leader, Kim Jong-un, made an unannounced visit to Beijing, meeting with President Xi Jinping weeks before planned summit meetings with American and South Korean leaders, Chinese and North Korean state news media reported on Wednesday.

The visit amounted to Mr. Kim’s international debut: It was the 34-year-old leader’s first trip outside North Korea since he took power in 2011, and his first meeting with another head of state. The surprise discussions added another layer of complexity to the rush of global diplomacy around North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Mr. Kim told the Chinese leader that he was open to dialogue with the United States, including a potential summit meeting with President Trump, and was committed to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, according to an account published by China’s news agency Xinhua.

“If South Korea and the United States respond with good will to our efforts and create an atmosphere of peace and stability, and take phased, synchronized measures to achieve peace, the issue of the denuclearization of the peninsula can reach resolution,” Mr. Kim said, according to Xinhua’s summary of his meeting with Mr. Xi.

Hours after the meeting was announced, Mr. Trump said on Twitter that he looked forward to meeting Mr. Kim, and that there was “a good chance” that the North Korean leader would “do what is right for his people and for humanity.”

Mr. Kim’s trip unfolded in extraordinary secrecy and security; it was confirmed only after he left Beijing on the same armored train that stirred speculation when it arrived mysteriously in the Chinese capital on Monday. (Both Mr. Kim’s father and grandfather, the North’s former leaders, used similar trains for foreign trips.)

Mr. Kim made the trip at the invitation of Mr. Xi, North Korea’s state-run Korean Central Television reported soon after the announcement in China. Mr. Kim was accompanied by his wife, Ri Sol-ju, as well as by his senior advisers, it said.

The visit suggested that Mr. Kim values or needs China’s approval — and possibly its advice — as he seeks to capitalize on a risky diplomatic opening with Mr. Trump after more than a year of tension and threats.

Mr. Xi, for his part, said that China supported efforts to defuse tensions on the Korean Peninsula and he praised Mr. Kim for the recent improvement there.

“This year there have been promising changes in the situation on the Korean Peninsula, and we express our appreciation for the major efforts that North Korea has made in this regard,” Mr. Xi said, according to Xinhua.

The tone was a significant shift. Over the past six years, relations between the two leaders have been widely reported as chilly. Mr. Kim rebuffed overtures from China, and purged officials who had previously served as the main channels to Beijing, including his uncle, who was executed.

At a banquet this week, though, Mr. Kim praised North Korea’s friendship with China, saying he wanted to “continue the traditional” ties, Xinhua said.

China described the trip as an unofficial visit, though it published photographs of the youthful leader with Mr. Xi and the two leaders’ wives, and of their tour of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

In Washington, the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, told reporters that the Chinese government had contacted administration officials on Tuesday to brief them about Mr. Kim’s visit. The briefing included a personal message from the Chinese leader to Mr. Trump.

Mr. Trump said on Twitter early Wednesday that Mr. Xi had told him the visit “went very well,” and that Mr. Kim looked forward to his meeting with Mr. Trump. “In the meantime, and unfortunately, maximum sanctions and pressure must be maintained at all cost!” Mr. Trump said.

Yang Xiyu, one of China’s leading experts on North Korea, said that Mr. Kim was clearly trying to repair the North’s deeply strained relations with Beijing, its traditional ally and benefactor, while opening new ties with its enemy South Korea.

Even so, Mr. Yang said, that did not signal that Mr. Kim was willing to give up his nuclear arsenal, though he has told South Korean envoys that he was prepared to discuss the possibility.

“He is starting a new game where he could make concessions on denuclearization,” Mr. Yang said. “At most, he will cut the grass, but he will not pull out the roots.”

On some level, the very fact that Kim left North Korea for an extended period of time should send a significant signal about the state of affairs in the DPRK. For many years during the start of his reign after the death of his father, analysts sensed that the younger Kim was contending with potential challenges to his rule from forces in the party and potentially the military given the fact that he had taken power at such a young age and without having served at his father’s side for nearly as long as his father had served at the side of Kim Il Sung, the founding member of the Kim regime. During those early years, there were several reports of political rivals, including members of the Kim family itself, being arrested and executed, quite often in a brutally effective manner. It’s also been suggested that the more aggressive military tone that the regime took in those years, as well as the radical steps forward in nuclear and ballistic missile testing, were meant as much to secure Kim’s position in power internally as they were to send a message to the wider world. During those early years, the idea of leaving the country for an extended period of time was likely out of the question due to the possibility that Kim’s potential rivals might have used his absence as an opportunity to seize control of the state. With his rivals largely eliminated, and his position further secured thanks to the advances he pushed for in the nuclear and ballistic weapons programs, it seems clear that whatever concerns Kim may have had regarding his hold on power are behind him.

As for why Kim would make sure his first foreign trip would be to China, as CNN’s James Griffiths notes, the answer to that question is rather obvious:

Since North and South Korea reopened diplomatic ties in February, Pyongyang has been pushing for a Korean solution to the ongoing crisis on the peninsula, which analysts say is a way of driving a wedge between Seoul and Washington.

But recent moves have also left China, North Korea’s most important ally, somewhat marginalized.

The two countries have been allies since the Korean War, when Mao Zedong sent troops to support Kim’s grandfather Kim Il Sung, and still maintain a mutual defense treaty, under which they pledge to “immediately render military and other assistance by all means at its disposal” in the event of war or foreign attack.

Since Kim Jong Un took power in 2011 however, the relationship has become increasingly strained. Kim purged several key officials with close ties to Beijing, including his uncle, Jang Song Thaek.

He also angered China by pursuing missile and nuclear testing against Beijing’s stated goal of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.

“The North Korean Chinese relationship has not been very good in recent years, particularly over China’s acceptance of international sanctions and degree of implementing thecm,” said James Hoare, an associate fellow at Chatham House and former UK diplomat in North Korea. “These will be subjects the North Koreans are keen to talk about.”

Foster-Carter agreed, adding Pyongyang may be hoping China will ease up on sanctions following the summits with South Korea and the US.
Tong Zhao, a North Korea expert at the Carnegie Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, said Pyongyang “wants to have some insurance against this upcoming summit meeting with President Trump.”

“They know the meeting is very important but also very risky, there are a lot of uncertainties,” he said. “If the meeting fails the US could declare that diplomacy has failed and shift to a more coercive approach or even a military strike.”

“A stable and positive relationship with China would prevent the US from launching a military strike,” Zhao said.

As an initial thought, it’s not surprising that Kim would make sure that his first meeting with a foreign leader was with the leader of China. For one thing, the past several years have seen some evidence that the relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang has been tense due largely to Chinese unease at the aggressive actions that the North Koreans have been taking. This has manifested itself in actions such as the increased willingness of the Chinese leadership to go along with international sanctions against North Korea in response to its increased nuclear and ballistic missile testing and the aggressive tone it has taken toward its neighbors and against the United States.

At the same time, though, the Chinese have been careful not to go as far as they could in slapping the DPRK’s hand and going along with American efforts to put pressure on the regime. For example, Beijing continues to buy coal from the North Koreans and to give them access to oil and other needs that they would not be able to function without. The main reason for this, of course, is that it’s been apparent for some time now that China’s overarching concern with respect to Korea is not so much to restrain the DPRK as to avoid chaos on the peninsula and, most especially, to avoid the possibility of a united Korea allied to the United States and the idea of American troops stationed north of the 38th parallel if not right across the Yalu River itself. For the time being at least, that means maintaining the stability of the Kim regime, and for China that will only change if and when Kim has outlived his usefulness or has proven to become more of a destabilizing force than a stabilizing one.

Toward that end, the Chinese likely have a keen interest in whatever may unfold in the upcoming, albeit as yet unscheduled and still very hypothetical, talks between North Korea and the United States. This is where the relevance of the meeting comes into play for both the North Koreans and the Chinese. For the North Koreans, showing that the DPRK still has the support of its longtime allies in Beijing helps Kim Jong Un strengthen his hand for whatever may lie ahead with respect to these talks. For the Chinese, the meeting between Xi and Kim serves as a reminder that they remain major players in whatever may unfold on the Korean peninsula and likely guarantees that the North Koreans will be careful not to agree to anything without being sure to have the backing of their allies in China.



FILED UNDER: Asia, National Security, North Korea, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. michael reynolds says:

    Excellent piece, Doug.

    After 15 months of Trumpiness on Korea we have:

    1) An obviously confident Kim Jong Un.
    2) A continuation of Chinese support for his regime and no end in sight.
    3) Tons more nuke and missile tests.
    4) A president reduced to the level of schoolyard bully.

    The South Korean people are not with us on this:

    A poll conducted on February 15 showed that 61.5 percent of South Korean adults nationwide were in favor of Moon travelling to Pyongyang for face-to-face talks with Kim, while 31.2 percent disagreed and expressed the belief that additional pressure – such as international sanctions – is the best way to force North Korea to moderate its behavior.

    Less than a third of the people most directly affected by a possible war want more sanctions. I couldn’t the internals, but I’ll bet that number closely tracks age and that younger South Koreans are even less in favor of the Trump approach.

    Meanwhile the world turns dramatically against. . . no, not North Korea or China, us:

    Median approval of U.S. leadership is 30%, down from 48% in 2016
    U.S. approval dropped substantially in 65 countries and areas
    Germany’s leadership now tops that of U.S., China and Russia

    WASHINGTON, D.C. — One year into Donald Trump’s presidency, the image of U.S. leadership is weaker worldwide than it was under his two predecessors. Median approval of U.S. leadership across 134 countries and areas stands at a new low of 30%, according to a new Gallup report.

    The most recent approval rating, based on Gallup World Poll surveys conducted between March and November last year, is down 18 percentage points from the 48% approval rating in the last year of President Barack Obama’s administration, and is four points lower than the previous low of 34% in the last year of President George W. Bush’s administration.

    So, North Korea gets an upvote from the world, and we get a downvote. And Kim still has nukes.

    15 months of childish bluster and threats from the idiot in chief, and nothing has changed except that the United States has been humiliated and has lost support.


  2. michael reynolds says:

    Another poll, just to show how disconnected Trump (and the American people) is from the world. The Germans:

    Tensions at the official level are reflected in German public opini0n. In a spring 2017 Pew Research Center poll, only 11% of Germans said they had confidence in Trump to do the right thing in world affairs. A year earlier, 86% had expressed confidence in Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.

    The change in American leadership has led to a shift in overall ratings for the U.S. in Germany. Just 35% of Germans had a favorable opinion of the U.S. in 2017, down from 57% in 2016.

    We are much less loved than we were, much less loved than we think we are. And to the extent that we are admired it is mostly for our culture – movies, TV, music. The parts of the US that people around the world like all come out of Hollywood, New York and Silicon Valley. You know: liberals.


  3. @michael reynolds:

    Personally, I think Trump is walking into something of a trap here. Without significant talks beforehand, which clearly have not taken place yet, a summit meeting between Trump and Kim isn’t going to accomplish much of anything in terms of a final agreement of any kind. Instead, it’s most likely to further strengthen Kim’s hand by giving him the prestige of being the first leader of the DPRK to meet with the President of the United States. That alone will be a victory for him. Trump, meanwhile, will likely walk away from whatever meeting does take place without any kind of deal and the likelihood of being backed into a corner by the twin pressure from Kim and and from XI. This strikes me as being especially true if, as some have suggested, this meeting ends up taking place in China itself (the idea of Kim agreeing to travel all the way to someplace like Switzerland or Finland seems unlikely).

    If Trump fails to walk away with a deal, then the talks will end up being branded a failure for him and at the same time it will make him seem like the aggressor if he tries to back away from future negotiations.

    I’d also keep in mind what Daniel Larison said this morning about the meeting. The Chinese statement about the Kim-Xi summit talks about “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” This isn’t just referring to the North Korean program, it’s referring to the presence of American troops in South Korea as well.

    I’m no expert when it comes to the Korean situation, and I’ll gladly defer to those who are, but it seems clear to me that when it comes to what the goals for talks might be the U.S. and its allies in South Korea and Japan and North Korea and its Chinese ally are coming at this from completely different angles. That suggests this whole thing could end in disaster.


  4. Kathy says:

    Trump’s gonna get played like a fiddle.

    If it were me, I’d very reasonably offer to get rid of my nukes, pursuant to a compete denuclearization of the Peninsula. This would entail, of course, the ability of North Korea to inspect US bases and ships in South Korea, so they can be certified as free of nuclear weapons.

    I can’t see Trump, or for that matter any American official, agree to such a thing, even if an international team under the UN were proposed.


  5. Mikey says:

    @michael reynolds: My wife grew up in Germany and so all her family is still there. We visit every year or two, we wish it could be more frequent but then I’m not an award-winning author. 😉

    Anyway, we were there the middle of last year, and holy shit do those people hate Trump. And by “those people,” I don’t mean just my wife’s family, I mean Germans in general. I have over 30 years of connection to Germany–living there, visiting for business or leisure, and of course the family connections–spanning the administrations of Reagan to Trump, and I have never seen the level of contempt and flat-out disrespect for an American President I did the last time we were there. Not even Bush post-2003 Iraq invasion sparked such disgust as Trump does today.

    I seriously wanted a T-shirt that said “Ich habe nicht für Trump gewählt.”


  6. michael reynolds says:

    @Doug Mataconis:
    Yep. And if the talks take place in China it’ll be Xi and his infinitely more experienced foreign policy team who will set the agenda, take credit for any success, and assign blame if there is a failure.

    On the plus side, Bolton’s smart enough to spot that trap. On the downside Bolton wants regime change in North Korea. So, if Bolton’s running the show we’ll start with maximalist demands and end there, too, which is likely to (deliberately?) deadlock the talks and risks the US looking like war-mongers. Which is fair enough, because the only nation involved which is remotely interested in a war is the US.

    I think it is very important for the American people to be heard on this issue, because I’d guess support for a new Korean war is in the very low double digits. I suspect Donald’s been told (by his expert advisory team at Fox and Friends) that the nation will rally behind him. The nation will do no such thing. It’s bad getting into a war that grows increasingly unpopular, like Vietnam; much worse getting into a war when probably 75% of Americans will be opposed from Day One.


  7. @michael reynolds:

    if Bolton’s running the show we’ll start with maximalist demands and end there, too, which is likely to (deliberately?) deadlock the talks and risks the US looking like war-mongers.

    As I’ve written before, the U.S. is already approaching these talks with the idea that the DPRK must agree that the ultimate goal would be denuclarization, by which we mean them giving up their nuclear weapons. The Kim regime is unlikely to agree to that without significant security guarantees, and the Chinese are likely to insist that the withdrawal of American forces also be on the table. And I wouldn’t forget the fact that both Beijing and Pyongyang are looking for an angle to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul. If Trump comes off as looking like he’s the one holding off the possibility of a deal, then they may go a long way toward achieving that goal.


  8. Franklin says:


    I seriously wanted a T-shirt that said “Ich habe nicht für Trump gewählt.”

    I can only guess that means either “I did not vote for Trump” or “Trump is a jelly doughnut.”


  9. Kathy says:

    Everyone’s who’s been paying attention knows North Korea can inflict devastating damage on South Korea in retaliation for an attack. There’s no need to point out this would have very adverse consequences for the rest of the world as well.

    What concerns me is that Bolton, never mind Trump, might consider thousands upon thousands of casualties and a major global depression as the acceptable costs of ridding the North of its nukes.


  10. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    I happen to be in Korea for the next two weeks, so I may post what my sense of things on the ground here are, but the history, even during the years that I lived here, is a little complicated. My take at the moment is …

    …First, Bolton is NOT smart enough to spot the trap because his paleo-conservative ego and ethos will not allow him to believe the THEY could ever possibly take advantage of HIM. That being said, the goal of NK in diplomacy seems to have always been to get the US to agree to one-on-one talks, so score this as a win for Kim. A big one considering the ninny currently occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

    While I first came here, and lived in Daegu at the time, the US and Korean militaries were working on a gradual reduction of the US military presence in Korea. One of the continuing elements of US involvment here has been that Koreans in general don’t like the idea of being seen as a client state for the US. Koreans see Korea as a first world nation, with good cause, and want to be in control of their own affairs and security. Various escalations by Kim’s father while I was here gradually evolved into a state of affairs where both the US and SK want to want a lower US military presence in Korea, but see having that reduced presence as problematical under the circumstances. During the eight years that I lived here the time line for reduction of the US presence moved from having most US troops out by 2015 (IIRC) to a joint consensus of “maybe we won’t be able to do this at all.” That status is a net loss for Kim, and by extension, Xi.

    When I was here last, just a month or two after the inauguration, my Korean friends were a little in awe of Trump’s reputation as a business man–bad information always leads to bad perception–and were a little curious about my assertions that Trump was a loon who could not be trusted as President. I’ll be interested in seeing how opinion has evolved here.

    Personally, I’m not optimistic that the talks will even take place, but if they do, they’ll be must see TV.


  11. Tyrell says:

    “Kim Jong talks denuclearification!”
    Is it possible? It looks like Trump’s strategy may well be working!
    “Art of the Deal”


  12. @Just ‘nutha ig’nint cracker:

    I’d be interested in your perspective and what you sense while you’re there.


  13. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I’ll weigh in as it seems appropriate and I find out stuff.


  14. michael reynolds says:
  15. grumpy realist says:

    @Mikey: This is just another reason why I predict any rupturing of the nuclear containment treaty with Iran would go down like a wet cow fart in Europe. We had enough trouble getting everyone around the table in the first place–if we have a temper tantrum and stomp away from the deal there’s no reason why anyone else would follow us. Germany wants to sell automobiles to Iran. China wants oil; the rest of the EU would be perfectly happy to find another market now that the U.K. is about to spin off into acute irrelevance with its Brexit madness. And the Russians would always be glad to find yet another way of embarrassing the US, so they’ll probably be quite happy to keep on being chummy.

    The end result is that we’re going to huff and puff and try to blow the house down—and discover that no one listens to us any more. Whoops!

    (And I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t even care. At some point you have to stop warning your little brat of a younger brother that if he keeps teasing the cat he’ll get scratched–and just let him go ahead and get clawed. Stupidity should hurt.)


  16. grumpy realist says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’nint cracker: P.S. your comment about Bolton and his ego reminds me of what I’ve been seeing with U.K. politicians. Too many of them seem to think that a public-school education and a knowledge of Latin somehow guarantees a place at the top of the world heap. Empire 2.0. Also the knee-jerk reaction that “the other side is bluffing”, no matter what.