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Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is set to hold his first summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang later this week, following four meetings between the two in China since March last year.
During each of Kim’s previous visits to China, the two sides have emphasized their strong bonds and promised to enhance cooperation in areas from the economy to cultural exchanges, and various other government-level exchanges.
A Chinese spokesperson said Monday when announcing the latest trip that the two leaders would once again focus on boosting economic, cultural, and other exchanges, in addition to the “situation on the Korean Peninsula.”
Coming amid a flurry of other summits – with Kim holding his first summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in late April, Xi and Putin meeting earlier this month, and Xi set to meet both the U.S. and South Korean presidents later this month – this week’s summit is also bound to impact both North Korea’s domestic policy and ongoing denuclearization talks.
So what has led the two leaders to finally meet in the North Korean capital, how will this summit be different, and how will it affect the ongoing stalemate in negotiations with the U.S. and South Korea?
The following experts responded in time for our deadline:
Alison Sinead Evans: North Korea has sought additional summits, with China, Russia, South Korea, and the U.S., since the Hanoi summit in February ended early and without an agreement. Last week South Korean President Moon Jae-in said he hoped to meet North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un again before U.S. President Donald Trump’s proposed visit to Seoul at the end of June.
However, all previous North Korea-South Korea summits have been preceded by a China-North Korea summit, likely due to the allies’ intention to share certain information, co-ordinate, and at least maintain the image of a close relationship. Similarly, this upcoming summit will be a key communication opportunity before Chinese President Xi Jinping attends the G20 summit in Japan on 28-29 June.
Hoo Chiew Ping: The reports of Xi Jinping’s visit to Pyongyang had emerged after the third summit between Xi and Kim, and it was reportedly to be held in April this year. However, the outcome of the Hanoi Summit prompted North Korea to cancel or postpone many high-level meetings (especially with South Korea), as the regime leadership had to restrategize what to do next.
The Kim-Putin Vladivostok Summit did not enable Kim to extract substantive positive concessions from Russia, thus leaving North Korea with no choice besides the U.S. and China. The visit to Pyongyang is largely China’s geopolitical calculation in order to gain an upper-hand in the current U.S.-DPRK diplomatic impasse.
Ken Gause: It is the 70th anniversary of Sino-North Korea diplomatic relations. That said, it is also an opportunity for Xi and Kim to discuss the lack of progress in U.S.-North Korea relations and how China can support getting diplomacy back on track. From Kim’s perspective, having such a meeting will reduce the pressure he is feeling over the situation, since Xi’s decision to visit at this time is an expression of support for North Korea.
Théo Clément: There are structural and cyclical effects at play here in my opinion. Xi Jinping needs to get closer to Kim Jong Un since at least last year, as the rapprochement with Seoul and even Washington does not really match Chinese interests. This is why we saw two rushed Kim Jong Un visits to Beijing and Dalian in 2018. On top of that, and more importantly in my view, Xi Jinping wants to express discontent towards the U.S. and the trade war, which I believe is much more worrying to Xi that the lack of impetus in denuclearization talks.
A state visit to Pyongyang, which has been quite rare for a Chinese leader since the Arduous March, is a stronger signal than merely once again welcoming Kim Jong Un in Beijing, and it reminds Trump that Chinese cooperation on the DPRK is crucial and that the trade war against China is counter-productive.
Mintaro Oba: Part of it may simply be protocol — a feeling that Trump’s visit to Seoul needed to be matched with a corresponding Xi visit to Pyongyang. But substantively, it’s worth noting that both North Korea and China have exhausted most of their diplomatic options.
The North Korea-Russia summit is over. Pyongyang has little room for maneuver with Washington and Seoul. North Korea needs China but doesn’t want to highlight its dependence on China; China wants to stay in the diplomatic fray and show that it is pivotal to the process. Xi finally visiting Pyongyang might have been the only feasible way for both sides to meet these interests at the present time.
Alison Sinead Evans: This summit is likely to cover similar topics to meetings in 2018, including economic cooperation, peace, and the “denuclearisation” of the Korean peninsula. Although trade remains constrained by United Nations Security Council sanctions strengthened in 2016 and 2017, China is likely to offer some humanitarian assistance to North Korea.
Hoo Chiew Ping: Xi Jinping is most likely to use the visit to remind the Trump administration that the U.S. policy of maximum pressure will not work without China’s role. Although it is uncertain whether Kim Jong Un will ask Xi to pass a message to Trump, the meeting is highly likely to result in reaffirming the China-North Korea consensus on the outcome of the Summit Diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula, and North Korea and China will strategize according to their pre-agreed terms of cooperation established in the previous summits between them.
North Korea may request for more aid in light of the food situation as reported to the FAO, and the relief items crucial for the completion of Kim’s mega projects like the Wonsan Kalma tourist resort and the large-scale development plans in Sinuiju and Samjiyon, which are delayed by sanctions. Another area could be science and technology development in North Korea, as Kim Jong Un intends to strengthen this field in order to elevate Pyongyang’s livelihood standard and also as another means to bypass sanctions.
Ken Gause: Kim wants to make sure that Xi has his back, even if he needs to go in another direction at the end of the year because Trump won’t move away from Maximum Pressure. Xi will be able to assess the art of the possible in terms of denuclearization. He can then share this assessment with Washington as a way of jumpstarting U.S.-North Korea negotiations. Xi most likely hopes to find what Kim is willing to do to secure sanctions relief. This will help Beijing calibrate its North Korea policy.
Théo Clément: For Beijing, I definitely expect a strong reference to enhanced economic cooperation between the DPRK and China, first because it is coherent with what we currently see at the border (in addition to unimpeded trade, negotiations on larger cross-border economic integration projects, as reported by NK News). Second because it would put pressure on the U.S. and remind them that the North Korean nuclear issue cannot be solved without China.
On the North Korean side, it is of course a boost in Kim Jong Un’s political and diplomatic prestige: once again, visits by Chinese leaders have been rare in recent years. However, North Korean policy-makers are smart enough to see that Xi’s move is aimed at the U.S. and that promises on economic engagement might be nothing more than a diplomatic bluff. I think that Pyongyang will be pretty irritated to be once again used as a pawn in the U.S.-China rivalry, but they will also see opportunities in using this seemingly conciliatory Chinese policy to pressure South Korea and the U.S. into more flexibility to move the denuclearization talks, and especially promises of economic engagement, forward.
Mintaro Oba: Optics is going to be a big part of this. Xi will want to look like the elder statesman who has deigned to come see his junior partner, who needs him. Kim will want to look like an equal or better partner. Both sides will want to demonstrate they are united on nuclear diplomacy and sanctions, but for Xi there will be an added element of showing that China’s clout matters and that it is pivotal to this diplomatic process.
Ideally for Kim, this will demonstrate he has strong regional backing for his priorities without creating an impression of great dependence on Beijing.
Bonnie Glaser: If Xi and Kim agree to increase trade in products banned by UN Security Council resolutions, such as North Korean coal exports to China, this is unlikely to be announced. More importantly, Xi may agree to push for sanctions easing at the UN, but that would likely be part of a larger deal.
Hoo Chiew Ping: Though there has been tightening of Chinese implementation of sanctions since 2017, after the Trump-Kim Singapore Summit it has returned to “business as usual.” Past visits by Chinese leaders to Pyongyang have been marked by important geostrategic events, such as the Sino-Soviet split, the end of the Cold War change in diplomatic outreach, and the last one 14 years ago by Hu Jintao during the 60th anniversary of Korean Workers’ Party and the process of the Six-Party Talks.
Xi’s offer will come with conditions attached, given Kim’s tendency in diplomatic forays such as his outreach to Russia after Hanoi without clear indication of communication with Beijing before the move. These kinds of actions show that Kim is yet to settle on the fact that China is North Korea’s sole security and economic provider. However, there is no reason for Xi not to offer any form of further sanctions relief and provide energy and financial assistance to North Korea, as this would increase China’s leverage over the peninsula.
Théo Clément: De Jure, nothing, UNSC resolutions almost amount to a full economic embargo of the DPRK. De facto, quite a lot, since it is well-known that sanctions are not being applied at the border or at sea, as countless reports have shown. Trade generally goes unimpeded despite what the partial and unreliable Chinese data claim, but larger economic integration projects have been on hold.
A more or less explicit nod by Xi Jinping to a North Korean Special Economic Zone, the announcement of a new factory being jointly developed, or even economic or humanitarian assistance could be mentioned, for instance. Following the visit, I would not be surprised to see the Chinese business community in the borderlands being bolder in its sanctions-busting, interpreting the visit as tacit approval from Beijing.
Alison Sinead Evans: This fifth China-North Korea summit since March 2018 is likely to facilitate a change in North Korea-U.S. relations only if Trump and Xi can discuss something new on the sidelines of the G20 summit.
Progress in talks between North Korea and the U.S. most likely depends on the Trump administration deciding to alter its ‘all-or-nothing’ negotiating position on “denuclearisation” in exchange for sanctions relief adopted at the Hanoi summit.
Bonnie Glaser: Xi Jinping may think he can get a better deal with the U.S. on trade if he is able to persuade Kim Jong Un to restart nuclear negotiations with the U.S. The timing of the visit, just before the G20, suggests potential linkage.
Of course, there are other reasons for this visit as well. Xi seeks to enhance China’s influence on the Korean Peninsula and strengthen bilateral ties on the 70th anniversary.
Hoo Chiew Ping: As the timing of this visit is scheduled before the G20 Osaka Summit, where we believe Xi and Trump will meet on the sidelines, there is the possibility that President Xi will try to use North Korea to test the possibility of U.S. willingness in order to make leeway in U.S.-China trade and tariff disputes.
As Bolton has confirmed that a third U.S.-DPRK summit is “entirely possible,” Xi may want to make sure the next step in denuclearization talks by both the U.S. and North Korea will not harm China’s interests.
If he can convey what the U.S. can do to get North Korea to make concessions on its nuclear program, then U.S.-North Korea diplomacy can be resurrected.
Théo Clément: I don’t think it is going to have a very strong impact, since I think China’s message is first and foremost addressed to the U.S. and deals with the trade war. I really don’t see Beijing openly and explicitly calling for sanctions circumvention in the current context, so I don’t think it will go very far beyond emboldening traders that are already breaking sanctions.
If Pyongyang plays it well, however, they might not only be able to boost economic cooperation with the Chinese side but also, in reaction, negotiate a more conciliatory attitude from Seoul, which clearly does not need China-DPRK ties to grow stronger. As for the U.S., if Donald Trump is the great dealmaker he claims to be, he’ll know that it is not the time for Washington to convene a third summit with Pyongyang, as clearly Kim Jong Un not only ignores economic pressure but also keeps making diplomatic progress with rivals of the U.S. such as Beijing and Moscow.
Another related, but more distant possibility is that being able to show the leader of China came to Pyongyang will garner Kim Jong Un some much-needed domestic political space after Hanoi, allowing him to take a risk on some sort of new diplomatic gesture to the United States or South Korea.
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: KCNA