The surprise visit to Beijing by North Korea’s Kim Jong Un could offer both Kim and Chinese President Xi Jinping stronger hands for upcoming discussions with the United States, says USIP analyst Frank Aum. As news of the meeting broke, Aum, who previously advised the U.S. Defense Department on Korea issues, discussed its implications.

President Xi Jinping of China, right, shakes hands with Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader
Photo Credit: Korean Central News Agency via The New York Times

Why did Xi Jinping meet with Kim Jong-Un?

Amid the recent whirlwind of diplomatic maneuvering by South Korea and the United States, China has felt marginalized and a step behind. China believes that it is on the outside looking in regarding the Korean peninsula, and that South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and President Trump are in the driver’s seat. The Chinese government also feels that China has come out on the losing side of many issues—including the steel tariffs, Japan’s growing militarization, and the United States’ deployment of its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system on the peninsula—despite cooperating with Washington on pressuring North Korea. By meeting with Kim Jong Un before the inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korea summits, Xi has asserted a bold power play that reinforces China’s role on the Korean peninsula and throughout the negotiating process.

During their meeting, Xi said, “[China and North Korea] both have stated on many occasions that we must continue to pass on the traditional friendship between China and North Korea and develop it better. This is a strategic choice made by both sides based on history and reality, based on the international and regional pattern and the overall situation of Sino-Korean relations. It is also the only correct choice, and it should not and will not change because of one-time events.” It’s almost as if, with this summit, China and North Korea were trying to erase at least seven if not more years of bad blood to resume the traditional benefactor-buffer state relationship.

And Kim Jong-Un: What was his motivation in this meeting?

Both North Korea and the United States are trying to maximize their leverage before the potential Trump-Kim summit. So it’s likely that Kim is trying to figure out what reassurances, leverage or carrots China can offer North Korea. In this high-stakes game of diplomacy and security, it only makes sense for Kim to strengthen his traditional alliances as much as possible.

What is the significance of China announcing that Kim stated a willingness to give up nuclear weapons?

The Chinese state news agency, Xinhua, quoted Kim as saying: “The issue of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula can be resolved, if South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace.” At first glance, Kim seems to be willing to discuss denuclearization, like his father and grandfather did in the past. He even uses language reminiscent of the “action for action” or “commitment for commitment” reciprocity used in the Six Party Talks [negotiations from 2003 to 2008 that included North and South Korea, China, Russia, Japan and the United States]. This is good so far.

But if the “synchronous” (I’ve seen “simultaneous” used in another translation) measures refer to things like an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces or mutual U.S. and North Korean denuclearization, that is a non-starter and an indication of North Korea’s lack of seriousness. On the other hand, if North Korea is referring to parallel-track discussions on both denuclearization and a peace regime, which China proposed two years ago and South Korea seems to be supporting, and the peace regime discussion doesn’t require an immediate drawdown of U.S. forces, then there may something to work with. Reducing the nuclear or “strategic” aspects of U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises, refraining from offensive messaging like Twitter taunts, and providing humanitarian, economic, and energy assistance are all “synchronous” measures that could be considered.

How does the meeting of Kim and Xi affect the U.S. approach to the potential Trump-Kim summit?

The overall U.S. approach to North Korea during the upcoming summit should remain largely the same. Washington’s goal has always been to achieve the complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and thus to maintain maximum pressure until North Korea takes concrete steps towards denuclearization.

As Washington prepares, it should take into account North Korea’s potential going-in position, in light of what came out of the Kim-Xi summit. Again, Xi’s revanchist aims and Kim’s statement about “synchronous” measures should raise red flags at the White House. Also, if Xi is seeking to strengthen relations with North Korea and promised to ease up on sanctions enforcement in exchange for North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization, then this could weaken President Trump’s leverage during his own talks with Kim.

The more important variable might be John Bolton taking over as President Trump’s national security advisor. Despite his recent efforts to downplay his track record of seeking aggressive approaches against rogue states, there is still significant concern among many experts that Bolton does not want to negotiate with North Korea because he thinks Kim is a criminal who can’t be trusted. Instead, his preference seems to be North Korea’s unconditional surrender or some type of regime change.

So if Kim is signaling that the United States must pay steep costs for North Korean denuclearization (e.g., withdrawal of U.S. troops from the peninsula or mutual denuclearization), Bolton could argue that North Korea is not serious about negotiating and advance his own policy preferences. On the other hand, if President Trump decides to act on his isolationist tendencies and actually agrees to some withdrawal or drawdown of U.S. forces from the peninsula in exchange for a denuclearization deal—which Trump wants badly—then Bolton could play a restraining role. It’s unclear which way President Trump is leaning.

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