The confirmation of a meeting between Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un surprised many this morning, especially given the poor state of DPRK-PRC relations over the last year.
Following two days of intense media speculation over a mysterious North Korean delegation in China, state media from both countries reported that Kim Jong Un had used his first-ever trip abroad as DPRK leader to visit Beijing and meet with the Chinese President.
Accompanied by his wife and a group of high-ranking officials, the two men wined and dined and agreed that the two countries ties would grow ever closer. Unsurprising, the thorny issue of sanctions appears to have been avoided.
But what impact will this undoubtedly historic meeting have on the current state of affairs on the Korean peninsula? How might it affect plans for upcoming DPRK-ROK and DPRK-U.S. summits? And why did Kim Jong Un’s visit stay a secret for so long?
The following experts responded in time for our deadline:
- Akira Igata, Visiting Professor, Tama University
- Daniel Pinkston, lecturer in international relations with Troy University.
- Go Myong-Hyun, Research Fellow, Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
- Hoo Chiew Ping, Senior Lecturer in Strategic Studies and International Relations, National University of Malaysia (UKM)
- Naoko Aoki, Adjunct Fellow, Pacific Forum CSIS
- Peter Ward, MA candidate at Seoul National University in the Department of Sociology
- Yun Sun, Non-resident Fellow, Brookings Institution
1. What do you think motivated Xi Jinping to invite Kim Jong Un to China at this time, and for Kim to accept?
Akira Igata: For Xi Jinping, inviting Kim Jong Un to PRC ahead of the planned North-South summit and Trump-Kim Jong Un meeting would send a signal to the relevant countries in the region that China remains a critical player in the talks over North Korea’s denuclearization.
For Kim Jong Un, this will serve as a reminder to ROK and the U.S. that China has its back and bolsters North Korea’s position in entering the talks with ROK and US.
Daniel Pinkston: There are a number of bilateral issues to discuss, but in general, the current geopolitical trends in the region. The Chinese leadership certainly desired a briefing and discussion regarding the inter-Korean thaw and summit plans. I’m sure Xi wanted to make China’s position clear to Kim prior to the inter-Korean summit.
As far as a long list of bilateral issues, the same applies to Kim, but I would think the NK delegation would want to see China reaffirm its security commitment under the bilateral friendship treaty. And I’m sure they had much longer and complex discussions over “economic cooperation” that would come in the form of trade, investment, aid, trade credits, debt relief, etc. This would help Kim in his efforts to gain some sanctions relief.
Go Myong-Hyun: Xi probably realized that one important leverage that it had vis-à-vis South Korea and the United States, namely its influence over Pyongyang, was diminishing fast in the light of South Korea’s successful opening of the inter-Korean dialogue with the North, followed by the tentative agreement to hold US-North Korea summit.
What compelled Xi to quickly meet with Kim was probably the prospect of Kim and Trump, however unlikely, of striking a nuclear settlement that would have upset the strategic alignment in NE Asia. For North Korea meeting with Xi would satisfy two needs: first, the necessity to pressure Trump to back off from denuclearization as pre-condition to the upcoming summit. China has traditionally prioritized stability over denuclearization in the Korean peninsula, and after this meeting China is going to put more support on North Korea’s approach of “talk first, denuclearization last”, or as a compromise, a step by step approach to denuclearization in which both sides incrementally trade security guarantee measures with denuclearization steps.
Second, North Korea needs to prepare the ground for the immediate relaxation of sanctions after the U.S.-North Korea talks. North Korea needs China to relax the enforcement of economic sanctions against the country even when the international sanction measures remain in place. Simply turning a blind eye to the smuggling activities along the border can be of huge relief to a small economy like North Korea’s.
Hoo Chiew Ping: I believe Xi Jinping felt he has been sidelined during the recent Korean peninsula developments. If Kim Jong Un met other heads of states before meeting the Chinese President first, it would be a face-losing experience for Xi Jinping as he is trying to assert his strong leadership domestically and in Asia.
As Kim Jong Un had not have any substantive interactions with the Chinese representatives, including with China’s special envoy Song Tao who visited Pyongyang in November last year, it was a tell-tale sign that the North Korean regime has been resisting Chinese influence and attempted to reduce dependency on China, which was the case since Kim Jong Un purged his uncle Jang Song Taek.
It is clearly a strategic move by Xi to re-establish China’s influence over the peninsula. And if the meeting did not materialize before Kim met Moon and Trump, China would be further sidelined from the Korean peninsula peace process.
Naoko Aoki: It makes a lot of sense for both sides to have a summit meeting before Kim Jong Un’s proposed talks with the South Korean and U.S. leaders in the coming months. For China, it is a chance to have a role in the current diplomatic initiatives surrounding North Korea and try to talk to the North Korean leader about Beijing’s view on how to move forward.
For North Korea, it is a gesture of goodwill to an important friend, who it has snubbed in a way for the past six years or so. I find it interesting that the Xinhua News Agency report mentions Kim mentioning denuclearization, but the North Korean reports so far have not mentioned that.
Peter Ward: Chinese President Xi was motivated by what he saw going on in inter-Korean relations and U.S.-North Korean relations. The North has successfully engineered summits with both South Korean President Moon and U.S. President Trump. Hence, President Xi appeared to be marginalized, and obviously sought to put China on an equal footing with the other two major parties to the North Korean nuclear issue. It will be interesting to see whether it has any effect on Chinese enforcement of sanctions targeting North Korea.
Yun Sun: For China to invite the North Korean leader to visit China this time I think is directly associated with the upcoming summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un. The invitation was conveyed to President Trump on March 8 and according to Chinese Central Television, Kim Jong Un started his visit to China March 25 – about two weeks.
I think the chronology or the sequencing of the event suggests that the Chinese invitation is primarily motivated by or related to the upcoming summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un. As for why the North Korean leader would accept such an invitation, I think the North Korean leader has an interest in coordinating his position with China and, after all, the two countries remain allies.
In particular, I think North Korea does not have an intrinsic interest in attacking China, to exclude China completely from the negotiation and discussion about the future of the North Korean nuclear issue.
2. What do you think is the most important outcome of the meeting and why?
Akira Igata: Kim Jong Un is planning to hold a summit meeting with ROK and U.S. – and it has now met with Xi. For Japan, the most important outcome is its increased fear of being left out and the resulting policy shift towards engagement with North Korea.
While Japan has been taking a hard stance towards North Korea following its nuclear test and multiple missile tests in 2017, it has been feeling the pressure of the recent North Korean diplomatic offensive. Even before the Xi Jinping-Kim Jong Un meeting, Japan has reached out to North Korea, delivering its intention to hold a Summit meeting between Prime Minister Abe and Kim Jong Un through multiple channels according to Kyodo’s report on March 22.
Japan needs to be part of the negotiation process if they hope to keep certain Japanese interests on the table, notably the abductee issue since this will likely be left out of the equation without Japanese involvement. We will thus likely see a further increased effort by Japan to hold talks with North Korea based on the Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration.
Go Myong-Hyun: The most important outcome is that China has been empowered by the Xi-Kim meeting. Moon recently mentioned about the necessity to carry out three-way talks – SK, NK, the U.S.- to bring a lasting settlement to the North Korean nuclear crisis. Beijing was conspicuous for its absence but that can no longer be the case. Moon, in his next speech, will have to highlight China’s “helpful” contribution to the peace and stability in the Korean peninsula.
It has shaken the confidence that Seoul had in terms of dictating the agenda for North Korea’s denuclearization and the eventual peace settlement. Seoul will be compelled to work harder to keep its access to Pyongyang from now on. The same goes for the United States- its recent actions showed that the U.S. was increasingly imposing its unilateral denuclearization agenda on both North and South. The U.S. will now face a more empowered China in North Korean matters.
Hoo Chiew Ping: The ultimate outcome is to reaffirm China’s position on denuclearisation of North Korea, to which Kim Jong Un had clearly expressed during the meeting, that he would commit to his father and grandfather’s will to fully denuclearize. But even more significantly, is to clear doubts on the fragile state of DPRK-PRC bilateral relations. For the reasons that I stated previously, China has been perceived as an ineffective actor throughout North Korean provocations especially since Kim Jong Un helms the power.
Thus, Kim Jong Un’s willingness to come to Beijing to meet Xi Jinping would mean Beijing had made irresistible offer for the Summit to happen. This is part of the face-saving strategy that China has to achieve, and the PRC government can worry less about what may transpire following the Kim-Trump Summit. Kim Jong Un’s statement on his willingness to meet Trump to talk about denuclearization is also a way to ensure the current White House (with Bolton in the State Department) would not back away from the U.S.-DPRK leader Summit.
Naoko Aoki: It is important that this meeting took place, and that it was Kim Jong Un’s first visit overseas as leader. This may mean that the relations between the two countries, which have been tense under the new leader, may go back to what it used to be under Kim Jong Un’s father, which means not as tense, even if not smooth.
Peter Ward: I am sure there were discussions that were had which will not make it into the Chinese or international media for some time. So I can only comment on what we know so far. For me, the way denuclearization was discussed and the phrasing adopted by Kim Jong Un (“progressive and synchronous measures”) heavily implies what North Korean domestic media continues to say: the United States, primarily, must also denuclearize.
Yun Sun: The most important outcome so far that we’ve seen is that China and North Korea demonstrated to the world that China and North Korea remain close friends.
I think China is able to demonstrate to the world is that any attempt to exclude China from future negotiations about the North Korean nuclear issue is futile and I think from the North Korean perspective, they can demonstrate to the United States that China has not abandoned North Korea and Sino-North Korea relations remain firm.
3. How will this Xi Jinping-Kim Jong Un meeting impact subsequent U.S-North Korea talks?
Akira Igata: The Xi Jinping-Kim Jong Un meeting has likely made the U.S.-North Korea talks more difficult for the U.S., since this meeting has made it increasingly clear that Chinese interests will undeniably be a part of the negotiation equation.
Daniel Pinkston: It can help clarify the degrees of freedom for Kim in the lead up to the U.S. talks. During his grandfather’s rule, Kim Il Sung used to balance between Beijing and Moscow, playing his big power patrons off one another. Kim and his father didn’t have that luxury.
I’m sure Kim wants to know what kind of positive incentives China is willing to put on the table for good behavior, i.e., suspending nuke and missile tests, and returning to talks. Whether the talks have a high probability of succeeding with arms control doesn’t matter as much to Beijing as it does for DC, Seoul, and Tokyo, and other friends and allies. As long as nuclear and missile tests are suspended and talks are going on, China is satisfied and believes the situation can remain under control.
Go Myong-Hyun: The restoration of the previous perception that China is a source of influence in the Korean peninsula is going to greatly affect the American calculus regarding the U.S.-DPRK summit. Trump probably thought that China was under control and would meekly enforce the sanctions against North Korea. No longer.
Now Trump faces the prospect that if he pushed too strongly the “denuclearization first” condition on North Korea then it could even result in the cancellation of the summit with Kim. The U.S. will have to be more flexible in this regard and be ready to take the step-by-step approach to North Korea’s denuclearization for a successful summit meeting with Kim.
Hoo Chiew Ping: The U.S.-DPRK talk would focus on how to carry out the specifications of CVID, hence the Xi-Kim meeting is less about technicalities but more on achieving political objectives. For Kim Jong-Un, it’s useful to have the backing of China while facing Trump. If the Kim-Trump meeting suffers from fallout, it would be the fault of the U.S. as China has officially expressed its blessings to the summit. Kim Jong Un is clearly dictating the direction of its foreign policy (provocations or charm offensives) and steadily influence the atmosphere of the security development in the region.
Naoko Aoki: I think this is bad news for those who wanted China to enforce stricter sanctions on North Korea. Coordination with China, in addition to allies South Korea and Japan, are more important than ever for the United States.
Peter Ward: President Xi has demonstrated that while China continues to implement sanctions, it remains a separate actor on the peninsula and in relations with North Korea. China will not simply follow orders from the United States on matters North Korean, and by meeting with Kim unannounced, prior to his meetings with Moon and Trump, Xi has indicated that Chinese cooperation and sanctions implementation cannot be taken for granted.
Yun Sun: I don’t see any direct relevance because although in the references that we saw, according to the Chinese official statement, Kim Jong Un made a reference to the upcoming talks between North Korea and United States. The Chinese side didn’t mention it at all.
4. What do you think explains the apparent total lack of knowledge of this meeting from South Korean government, intelligence and media sides?
Daniel Pinkston: I’m not in government and I’m not with any intelligence agency, so I can’t say what they know and didn’t know. I suspect they probably did know, but they have reasons to conceal any such knowledge out of the need to protect the sources and methods.
Go Myong-Hyun: Because it was in the interest of China and North Korea not to share the information on the upcoming Xi-Kim meeting with Seoul. Both countries want to shake Seoul’s growing sense of complacency about North Korea and China, and also the perception that Moon is sitting in the driver’s seat when it came to the Korean peninsular affairs.
Hoo Chiew Ping: China is not obligated to inform any party, including the ROK government, as Moon was supposed to be the first head of the government that Kim Jong Un was going to meet, it would look bad to snub the “honor” away from your neighbor. Conservatives in the ROK may say it shows North Korea remains an untrustworthy counterpart.
The Moon administration’s first reaction to the discovery of the secret visit was likely to consult the U.S. intelligence, while they should have focused on the intelligence capacity building at home and cooperate with China and Japan. ROK should also focus on re-establish reliable intel in North Korea, of which the previous administrations did.
Naoko Aoki: The way the visit was carried out – complete with a media blackout until Kim Jong Un’s departure from Beijing – harks back to Kim Jong Il’s visits. If there was indeed a total lack of knowledge, it may signal that China-North Korea relations are going back to what it used to be.
Peter Ward: Very simple: two possible explanations. First, they have no one high up in the North Korean government. If they ever did, they do no longer. Second, Kim and a small group around him made the decision at the last moment. Even if the group is infiltrated – though that seems unlikely – there may not have been time to communicate it before the trip started. I am inclined to believe that no major government has someone that high up in the North Korean leadership, and that the decision was also probably made at the last minute.
Yun Sun: Well that’s not just South Korea, it’s everybody. I don’t think the U.S. or Japan were aware and in fact that most public analysts and the Chinese side were not aware until the announcement was made this morning. So I won’t call it an intelligence failure.
I think that Chinese side and North Korean side planned very closely to maintain the secrecy of the visit and cued the visit, and waited until both sides were ready to make the announcement to the world. So I wouldn’t call it an intelligence failure. I would question or there is a question about why China did not share the information with any side.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA