27 June 2019

China, North Korea: Xi and Kim Meet With the U.S. in Mind

What Happened

As China's trade war with the United States shows no sign of abating, Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in North Korea on June 20 for a two-day state visit — the first by a Chinese premier in 14 years. Xi's visit with North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang comes a week before he is scheduled to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump at the June 28-29 G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan. The crucial G-20 meeting will provide an opportunity for the world leaders to gauge a potential cease-fire in the U.S.-China trade war. The timing of Xi's visit to North Korea is key, however, because it also coincides with a prolonged impasse in nuclear talks between Pyongyang and Washington following the breakdown of Kim's February summit with Trump in Hanoi, Vietnam — something Xi may seek to leverage in trade negotiations.

The visit was a ceremonious affair, with Kim and his wife greeting Xi — accompanied by top economic and foreign affairs officials — and the Chinese first lady at Pyongyang's airport. The two leaders reportedly held talks in their first person-to-person meeting in 15 months, with denuclearization and economic development on the agenda. Although Xi's full itinerary is unknown, he attended a welcome banquet, is scheduled to visit the Sino-Korean Friendship Tower, and could oversee mass games at the Rungrado May Day Stadium.

What to Watch For

Xi's trip is meant to underscore China's traditional alliance with North Korea after a period of troubled relations. Since former Chinese president Hu Jintao visited North Korea in 2005, Pyongyang has carried out several nuclear and numerous missile tests, making major strides in its strategic weapons program. Carrying out such a high-profile state visit at this juncture is a major boon for bilateral ties between North Korea and China given the North's increased isolation, the stall in Pyongyang's nuclear talks with Washington and Beijing's trade war with the United States. 

As an essential economic lifeline, China has latitude within the scope of current U.N. sanctions to contribute vital support to North Korea. This takes the form of increased tourist flows to the peninsula, providing much-needed cash for Pyongyang's coffers, and essential consumables to help weather a major food shortage. Beyond overt support, there is also the illicit cross-border and maritime trade that has been a vital linkage for North Korea. In terms of denuclearization, North Korea may provide China with a message to convey to the United States or may make some sort of weapons site dismantlement proposal.

It is no coincidence that Xi's trip to Pyongyang is happening one week before he sits down with Trump at the G-20 summit. It's an opportunity for China to highlight the fact that it is still North Korea's closest ally and benefactor.

It's no coincidence that the Xi-Kim meeting is happening a week before the Xi-Trump meeting at the G-20. The high-profile trip to Pyongyang is an opportunity for China to highlight the fact that it is still the key player in North Korea. Such a visit helps bolster Xi's position at the G-20 and will serve as a tacit reminder that without China's cooperation, U.S.-led maximum pressure will be fruitless when it comes to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Xi's visit allows North Korea to demonstrate the strength of its relationship with China, bolstering its position in the negotiation with the United States over the approach to denuclearization. It also comes at a time when Washington is pushing ultimatums on the issue. Just this past week, China and Russia blocked a U.S. bid in the United Nations to have the international body declare that illicit energy transfers to North Korea had already exceeded the cap imposed by sanctions (500,000 barrels per year) and that all fuel shipments to North Korea should be halted. 

The Xi-Kim meeting, which has been on the cards since 2018, was repeatedly delayed because China was cautious about sending the wrong message to the Trump administration as the trade talks continued. Xi's visit comes as China is facing major trade pressure from the White House, with dwindling prospects for a breakthrough deal that would end the dispute. North Korea's nuclear negotiations with the United States have entered a stage of deep stagnation.

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