North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s visit to China heralds brisk diplomatic maneuvers ahead over how to end the country’s nuclear threat.
Most of all, the visit, set to end Thursday, further heightened prospects for a second meeting between Kim and US President Donald Trump that is expected to set the course of their stalled denuclearization talks. In many respects, the surprise visit made at the start of the year is seen as a move by North Korea and China to demonstrate their alliance, especially toward the US.
Kim’s visit to China and meetings with President Xi Jinping came after Trump said that he was looking forward to meeting Kim again to discuss the denuclearization process that has been deadlocked since their first meeting in June. He also said the US and the North were negotiating the venue for their summit and that it would be decided “in the not too distant future.”
Trump expressed the hope in response to Kim’s New Year’s address, in which the North Korean leader said he was willing to meet the US leader at any time.
The fact that Kim visited China before and after crucial diplomatic events -- last year’s summit talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Trump -- strengthens speculation that a second Trump-Kim meeting is imminent.
Kim, who took power in late 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, made his first visit to Beijing in March last year, about one month ahead of his first meeting with Moon at the truce village of Panmunjeom.
Kim made his second trip to China in May, which focused on discussions with Xi about the then upcoming US-North Korea summit in Singapore. Kim then went to Beijing again only one week after he met Trump.
As in the previous cases, both Kim and Xi need to bolster their unity, especially vis-a-vis the US. Kim needs Xi’s blessing for his position on denuclearization and demands that the US ease sanctions imposed on its nuclear and missile provocations.
For his part, Xi can show Trump that he has unmatched influence on North Korea and that he could use it as a card in his dealings with the US, including the ongoing trade war.
It is believed to be against this backdrop that Kim and Xi agreed to meet again to coordinate their positions ahead of a second summit between Kim and Trump.
In his New Year’s address, Kim made it clear that the denuclearization talks with the US will be one of his major tasks in the coming year.
Overall, his message left open the door for talks to resume the stalled denuclearization talks with the US, although he did not forget to warn the US that the North could “seek a new path” if Washington holds on to sanctions. He definitely needs China’s backing if the denuclearization talks with the US are derailed.
One more reason Kim’s visit to China at the start of the year should be noticed is that in his New Year’s speech, the North Korean leader called for a multilateral peace scheme on the Korean Peninsula.
He said that the “signatories” of the armistice agreement that ended the 1950-53 Korean War only with a cease-fire should hold a multilateral negotiation to replace it with a peace treaty to guarantee permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula. China, which sent its army to the aid of the North during the war, is one of the signatories of the armistice accord.
In part, establishing a peace regime involving the two Koreas, the US and China makes sense. But what’s certain is that the promotion of any such scheme should be preceded by a full, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities.
As Kim opened 2019 with a high-profile visit to China, the pace of diplomatic engagements is likely to quicken and make the coming year a busy one. But it may take a little time before one can know whether what Kim and Xi discussed and agreed to will accelerate or decelerate the denuclearization process.