Xi’s North Korea Visit a Chance to Strengthen Ties, Influence US

The trip offers some welcome breathing space as the traditional allies work to strengthen ties.

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World
4 min read
In this 27 March 2018 photo, North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un (L), shakes hands with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing.
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In the highly formalised world of China-North Korea relations, Xi Jinping's trip to Pyongyang carries enormous symbolic significance. Although less certain, it may also yield outcomes that could influence both countries' relations with the US.

With tensions over trade, Taiwan and Hong Kong dominating Xi's diplomatic agenda, the trip also offers some welcome breathing space as the traditional allies work to strengthen ties that have been rocky at times, usually in relation to North Korea's nuclear weapons programme.

Kim has made four visits to China since March 2018.
Though relations between Xi and the North’s leader Kim Jong Un got off on a bumpy start, Kim has now made four visits to China since March 2018, each time taking care to show the proper deference to his country’s most important ally and provider of aid, trade and diplomatic support.

China Remains a Key Player in Peninsular Affairs

The timing of Xi's first visit as president ahead of the G-20 summit in Japan later this week seems to signal an intention that China remains a key player in peninsular affairs.

“The stability of the Korean Peninsula and realising denuclearisation are of vital importance to China. Beijing intends to play an important role as a mediator.”
Lu Chao, an expert on bilateral relations at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences in northeastern China

Such state visits are imbued with vast historical significance by the two countries, who still emphasise the role of revolutionaries such as Mao Zedong and Kim's grandfather, Kim Il Sung, in forging a relationship once referred to as being "as close as lips and teeth."

From ‘As Close as Lips & Teeth’ to Rather ‘Rocky’ Relationship

That changed after China embarked on economic reforms four decades ago while the North stuck to orthodox communism's shibboleths of state ownership and central planning, even as its economy tanked and starvation grew.

Necessity drove North Korea back into China’s embrace, but the regime’s testing of nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them destabilised the region and angered Beijing’s stability obsessed leaders.
 This undated file photo  by the North Korean government shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, second from right, at an undisclosed location in North Korea.  
This undated file photo by the North Korean government shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, second from right, at an undisclosed location in North Korea.  
(Photo Courtesy: Korean Central News Agency/AP)  

At their meeting, Xi will likely reiterate China's hopes for a restarting of six-nation denuclearisation talks it formerly hosted. China had accrued considerable political cachet for doing so at a time when the North looked amenable to ending its weapons programmes in return for economic assistance and the prospect of a formal peace agreement ending the 1950-53 Korean War before later abandoning the negotiations.

Beijing is also anxious to encourage North Korea’s self-declared shift away from nuclear confrontation toward economic development.

‘Any Movement on Nuclear Issue Could Lend New Momentum to Stalled US-North Korea Talks’

Any movement on the nuclear issue could also lend new momentum to currently stalled US-North Korea talks, Lu said, offering Beijing potential rewards from Washington amid the spiralling trade feud between them.

Yet, despite China's ongoing support for harsh UN economic sanctions, Xi is unlikely to push so hard as to put China's influence with Pyongyang at risk.

China is a major power that is very significant for the stability of the Korean Peninsula and takes its role as mediator seriously, Lu said, emphasising that Beijing is looking to Pyongyang to make an effective guarantee on the nuclear issue and take concrete measures.

 In this 4 July 2017  photo distributed by the North Korean government,  Kim Jong Un, second from right, inspects the preparation of the launch of a Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in North Korea’s northwest. 
In this 4 July 2017 photo distributed by the North Korean government, Kim Jong Un, second from right, inspects the preparation of the launch of a Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in North Korea’s northwest. 
(Photo Courtesy: Korean Central News Agency/AP)  
“To China, the best way to guarantee its long-term influence would be to solidify its special relationship” with North Korea.
Tong Zhao of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, in an emailed statement to AP

China’s Signal to US: It's Still ‘Indispensable in Resolving Important Regional Issues’

"By demonstrating its unique relations with DPRK at a time when neither Washington nor Seoul is able to resume high-level engagements with Pyongyang, Beijing is signaling to Washington that it is still a helpful, constructive and indispensable partner to resolve important regional problems," Tong wrote.

Pang Zhongying, a professor at Renmin University's School of International Studies in Beijing, said Xi and Kim's discussions will likely have a bearing on the content of meetings at the G-20 summit.

“By having a first-hand view on his visit to North Korea, Xi will be able to brief the US leader and other leaders if needed. China no doubt hopes to show its influence in this respect at G-20 and North Korea will be paying attention.”
Pang Zhongying, professor, Renmin University’s School of International Studies

Pang is less certain about how the US-China trade war might factor into the Xi-Kim talks.

‘China’s Help on N Korea Could Help It Win Better Trade Terms’

President Trump has previously said that that China’s help on dealing with North Korea could help it win better trading terms, although that was before trade talks broke down and the US hardened its position.

In contrast to knotty issues such as Hong Kong, where opponents of Beijing's increasing grip over the semi-autonomous Chinese territory have held massive street protests this month, and Taiwan, whose independence-leaning government has defied China's claim to the island republic, North Korea offers a relatively simple formula for engagement.

"As China-US strategic rivalry grows, China would be more preoccupied with maintaining its geopolitical influence over the Korean Peninsula vis-à-vis the US," Tong said.

(Published in an arrangement with the Associated Press)

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