Two unusual aspects bear noting at the outset. The first was the letter from Kim to Xi on the occasion of the Chinese leader’s birthday over the weekend; the letter praised Xi’s “great revival of the Chinese nation” and posed close strategic coordination between China and North Korea as an inevitable choice.
The second unusual aspect was the fact that Kim’s arrival in Beijing was actually reported on in more or less real time by Chinese state media. In a terse one-sentence dispatch from Chinese Central Television, it was noted that the North Korean leader would be in China for two days, departing today.
If this was at Kim Jong Un’s request, it goes along with the recent trends of altering minor cosmetic aspects of North Korean diplomacy, so that the appearance of transparency is heightened while at the same time keeping Kim insulated from foreign journalists who might actually ask him questions.
In this sense he may be taking his cues from Xi Jinping, who has not faced a foreign reporter’s question since 2014, rather than Bashar al Assad, who will occasionally sit down at length with outlets like Der Spiegel.
The obsequious tone of Kim’s letter to Xi might be read as an indication that it is the North Koreans who wanted the meeting most
Kim’s visit comes on the heels of intensified North Korean diplomacy with Russia (Kim’s meetings with foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, followed by a Putin invitation to Moscow conveyed to Kim Yong Nam), significant inter-Korean military talks at Panmunjom, and a possible weekend telephone call between Trump and Kim.
Why might the Chinese comrades have asked him to come?
No one outside of the two Party bureaucracies likely knows who initiated the meeting, although the obsequious tone of Kim’s letter to Xi might be read as an indication that it is the North Koreans who wanted the meeting most.
The North Korean KCNA readout of the Xi-Kim bilateral on Tuesday evening also indicated Kim wanted to express his gratitude to Xi for China’s “positive and sincere support and good help for the successful DPRK-U.S. summit meeting.”
Keeping China at the center
Since the Singapore summit, there has no shortage of overheated commentary from analysts about China’s relationship with North Korea.
On the one hand, some assert, China was the winner of the Singapore talks: Xi had apparently pressed Kim to walk back his admission at Panmunjom that he understood that U.S.-ROK military drills could continue. (A report from the Asahi Shimbun on Sunday fleshed this scenario out in some detail.)
Taken in isolation, each one of these ideas has merit, but can they all simultaneously be true?
If so, these assertions might be compressed into a single sentence: having “won” the Trump-Kim summit, China is now paranoid about losing the aftermath by having things proceed too smoothly between Pyongyang and Washington, and its posture along the border with North Korea is dictated by what comes out of Donald Trump’s undisciplined mouth.
It is Xi Jinping, rather than Kim Jong Un, who is freshest off of a face-to-face meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
Amid such incoherence and unsettled fears, it bears recalling that momentum toward U.S.-DPRK rapprochement is far from inexorable, China has been calling for U.S.-North Korea talks for a long time, and Beijing is putting itself in the position to remain an important intermediary anyway.
Tea leaves in the Diaoyutai
China’s ongoing centrality can be seen in the fact that it is Xi Jinping, rather than Kim Jong Un, who is freshest off of a face-to-face meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Pompeo stopped in Beijing on the way back from Singapore.
There, the Secretary of State conveyed “Donald Trump’s appreciation for President Xi Jinping’s important advice and help over the Korean peninsula issue,” a flourish of gratitude which surely grates on China-watching hawks like Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and was not included in the State Department’s official readout of the conversation.
The Xi-Kim bilateral readout is rather long and not terribly remarkable, but there are a few flourishes in the Chinese version which convey the notion that the CCP will never abandon its support for socialism in northern Korea, and that the CCP sees the Korean Workers’ Party as its true peer, capable of enacting a pivot toward greater economic power even as it maintains strict domestic controls.
As if to pair with the previous and potentially punitive “Three Nos” for Korea, Xi laid out what might be called “Three Unalterables” or “Three Constants.” Xi reiterated that “whatever changes occur in the international or regional situation, [China] will never change its stance” on the consolidation of Sino-DPRK relations, of people-to-people relations with DPRK, and on support for Korean socialism. (无论国际和地区形势如何变化，中国党和政府致力于巩固发展中朝关系的坚定立场不会变，中国人民对朝鲜人民的友好情谊不会变，中国对社会主义朝鲜的支持不会变)
Again, close strategic communication is held out as an end in itself, and it is not just the Americans who congratulate themselves for meeting their own low expectations whereby any bilateral with the North Korean leader can be painted as a win.
Kim and Xi’s banqueting and delegation choices raise a few interesting questions that practically write themselves. Ri Sol Ju and Peng Liyuan: will the singer-wives enable a turn in performing arts culture or get the Moranbong Band back in Beijing? Pak Pong Ju: will he trigger reform and opening up in North Pyongan? KPA brass in Beijing: a revival of the mutual security treaty?
However, in some ways more fractious and interesting than the questions raised by applying traditional Kremlinology to the meeting is the Chinese foreign ministry press briefing yesterday.
That briefing saw a (to my mind) unprecedented number of questions about North Korea (13). Some were ignored or dead-batted, but other which give a few final hints about what China wants to get out of the meeting with Kim, and where policy might be heading.
Close strategic communication is held out as an end in itself
While Kim Jong Un is in China, there are unlikely to be any groundbreaking commentaries from PRC academics about the relationship, and foreign reporters up on the PRC border with North Korea will surely have a difficult time.
Fortunately Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang was asked nearly a dozen questions pertaining to North Korea at his press conference yesterday, giving us a hint or two as to what we may see emerging later.
At the MFA press conference on 19 June, Geng refused to reveal who had requested the meeting. Interestingly, the following question and answer on North Korea sanctions, sparked by a Russian foreign ministry spokesperson’s remarks, was not translated by the MFA into English (and was thereby effectively erased so far as most international media was concerned):
答：中方一贯反对在联合国安理会框架外实施所谓的单边制裁，这个立场是非常清楚的。与此同时，中方认为安理会制裁本身不是目的，各方应支持、配合当前外交对话和为实现半岛无核化进行的努力，推动半岛问题政治解决进程.China, in other words, noted its opposition to sanctions against North Korea undertaken outside of the UN framework, and even its rhetorical support for UN sanctions appears to be slipping somewhat.
The phrase “sanctions are not themselves the goal” has surely been used before, but in the post-Singapore context it, along with avoiding questions about PRC sanctions enforcement along the border (where the U.S. President’s words understandably resonate with greater impact than those of his Secretary of State), bears more significance.
Kim Jong Un is now racking up frequent flier miles to China and this was, hopefully, the first of many KJU-PEK itineraries. As the Korean spring turns into summer, it seems likely that these two comrades will be seeing one another again soon.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
Join the influential community of members who rely on NK News original news and in-depth reporting.
Subscribe to read the remaining 1349 words of this article.