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Wang Son-taek is diplomatic correspondent for South Korea's YTN news network and one of the country's leading journalists on North Korea and diplomatic affairs.
President Xi Jinping’s visit to Pyongyang last week added to a long list of major diplomatic events related to the North Korean leadership since early last year. More than 15 summits between the leaders of South Korea, North Korea, the United States, and China have been held since April last year.
Almost every summit was significant and had serious implications for the countries involved in the North Korean nuclear issue.
So who gained most and who lost the most from the Kim-Xi summit?
XI JINPING, THE BIG WINNER
Throughout the diplomatic upheaval in and around the Korean peninsula, China now appears one step ahead of the game.
China had been, albeit briefly, marginalized: dialogue between North Korea and the U.S. was the key focus of the diplomatic process and talks were proposed and facilitated by South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Being sidelined was not very comfortable for President Xi, and he was keen to get back in the diplomatic game on the Korean peninsula.
He appears to have achieved this with his recent trip; he consulted with South Korea about the trip in advance, he received a positive response from North Korea and held close consultation on sensitive issues, and he was able to use the visit to set the agenda for his upcoming summit with Trump in Osaka, Japan.
The relationship between North Korea and China was improved by Xi’s visit, breaking a 14-year stretch in which a Chinese president had not visited the DPRK.
This visit, then, demonstrates President Xi’s strong desire to improve relations with the North.
And in return Chairman Kim welcomed him with the utmost devotion, mobilizing 10,000 people at the airport for a welcoming ceremony and another 250,000 roadside for the trip from the airport to downtown.
He held one more official welcoming ceremony at Kumsusan Palace plaza, where the bodies of his father and grandfather are on display. He even built or remodeled a top-class guesthouse for Mr. Xi.
Before the summit in Pyongyang, headlines on TV and in newspapers about China were bleak: focusing on protests in Hong Kong the trade war with the U.S.
The summit in Pyongyang, at least in part, changed all this — a clear win for President Xi.
The relationship between North Korea and China was improved by Xi’s visit
KIM JONG UN, SMALL WINNER
Ahead of Xi’s visit to Pyongyang, Kim Jong Un was isolated. Following the Hanoi summit, North Korea has exchanged harsh words with the U.S. and almost severed communications with the South.
This isolation did not produce any positive outcomes, only deteriorating prospects for the future.
Last week’s summit resolved that problem, compensating for Kim’s weakened position in terms of negotiating power. Should negotiations with the U.S. go wrong, North Korea now knows it can turn to its friends in Beijing.
China can also, along with Russia, build international pressure to lessen economic sanctions, claiming the North has taken some measures towards denuclearization.
Xi’s visit was also an opportunity for Chairman Kim to show off his stature, both domestically and internationally.
The picture of the two leaders waiving hands side by side when they rode in an open car serves to send a message: that Chairman Kim has the same status in world politics as President Xi. He has proven that he is powerful enough to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people just for a welcoming ceremony.
However, Xi’s visit may have a negative influence on the North in terms of its autonomy.
Chairman Kim, after all, again agreed to communicate with Mr. Xi on strategic issues. Close communication between the two leaders could mean that China has a fixed channel to give advice on the policy-making process — and new space to meddle in North Korean policy-making.
Xi’s visit was also an opportunity for Chairman Kim to show off his stature
MOON JAE-IN, CONDITIONAL WINNER
When the Kim-Xi summit was announced, there were critical voices in Seoul saying South Korea had been sidelined by North Korea and China.
However, a top official at the Blue House in Seoul told reporters that South Korea consulted with China about the possible trip to Pyongyang.
The comment is important, in that South Korea might have asked China to work as a mediator in dialogue between North Korea and the U.S.
Furthermore, if the summit helps to bring about a third summit between Kim and Trump, President Moon could be a clear winner. However, this may not be the case.
He could be being sidelined by the North for the time being, because Chairman Kim is disappointed with President Moon and he has got a new sponsor, China.
If Moon cannot recover a sense of credibility with Kim, it would be a stretch to say the Kim-Xi summit was a win for him.
TRUMP, THE POTENTIAL LOSER
President Donald Trump did not mention the summit between Kim and Xi, and it’s embarrassing for such a hegemonic nation to watch such an important event taking place outside of its control.
It is possible that the two leaders discussed ways to ensure unity against the U.S. So, there is a strong chance that Trump emerges the loser from this spate of peace diplomacy.
What’s needed now is effective diplomacy
That said, the U.S. president might soon hold another summit with Kim Jong Un with the help of Xi, and that could be a positive development.
There are lots of winners on the scoreboard from the Kim-Xi summit, a meeting that was timely and productive for many of the relevant parties.
However, the positive outcomes of the summit provided only possibilities for a better situation, not a better situation itself.
What’s needed now is effective diplomacy. If not, the winners could soon become losers.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA