Chinese President Xi Jinping’s two-day visit to North Korea, which starts Thursday, is seen to be aimed at strengthening China’s leverage against the US in the escalating standoff between the two superpowers over a broadening range of issues.
Xi’s trip to Pyongyang, his first as China’s leader, comes a week before he meets with US President Donald Trump during the Group of 20 summit set to be held in Osaka, Japan, on June 28-29.
By staging yet another scene of amicable talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Xi might want to show again that Beijing holds the key to changing the course taken by the recalcitrant regime in Pyongyang.
Since last year, Kim has traveled to China four times for consultations with Xi before and after his first and second summits with Trump.
US-North Korea negotiations have stalled since the second summit between their leaders in February ended without an agreement due to differences over the scope of Pyongyang’s denuclearization steps that could warrant sanctions relief from Washington.
During his stay in Pyongyang, Xi could help build a new momentum toward resuming talks between the US and the North. He might caution Kim against any further nuclear or long-range missile tests, and suggest a path forward for US-North Korea negotiations. The Chinese leader could then have something to convey to Trump when they meet next week.
Xi also has an option to back Kim’s defiant stance against Washington’s pressure by stressing the solid alliance between China and the North and offering considerable aid to the impoverished neighbor.
It is not too much to say that Washington is essentially dependent on Beijing for pushing through its strategy of applying maximum economic pressure on Pyongyang, as more than 90 percent of North Korea’s exports head to China. If Xi decided to unravel the US-led sanctions scheme, he could do so in a matter of time by lifting restrictions on cross-border trade with the North.
With either positive or negative implications, Xi appears to be more ready to use Beijing’s influence over the Kim regime as a leverage in handling conflicts with the US over widening areas from trade to technology and regional matters.
Through his visit to Pyongyang, Xi might also want to counter US support for recent popular protests in Hong Kong, which thwarted a push for a controversial bill to allow extraditions to mainland China, and Taiwan’s move to strengthen its independence from Beijing.
It needs to be noted that his hastily arranged trip -- no preparatory visit by ministerial-level officials preceded it -- marks the first time a Chinese leader has traveled to Pyongyang since North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006.
A long-standing symbolic gesture of China’s discomfort with the North’s nuclear ambitions has been withdrawn. This could be interpreted as implying that Beijing might go so far as to break the international sanctions regime against Pyongyang if Trump continues to push for demands that it sees as unacceptable.
Xi might also feel the need to keep the young North Korean leader from reaching an agreement with Trump that could eventually bring Pyongyang closer to Washington.
Kim certainly has reasons to believe it would be wiser to secure a deal with Trump, who has described his personal relationship with him as “very good and strong.” The US president announced last week that he had received a “beautiful and warm” letter from Kim, though its content remains undisclosed.
It would be hard for Kim to find another US president willing to engage in this kind of bromance.
In response to news of Xi’s upcoming visit to Pyongyang, the US State Department singled out China among the countries “committed to the shared goal of achieving the final, fully verifiable denuclearization of North Korea.”
South Korea’s presidential office said in a statement Monday that Seoul was keeping a close watch on Xi’s planned visit to Pyongyang, which it expected to help facilitate the early resumption of denuclearization talks.
There is now a more urgent need for Seoul to keep pace with Washington in getting the North to move toward complete denuclearization.
President Moon Jae-in said last week it was important to hold sufficient working-level negotiations to ensure a possible next summit between the US and North Korea would produce a specific accord. His remarks were in sync with a shift in Washington’s stance from a top-down approach to one that seeks sufficient presummit preparations.
South Korea and the US should consolidate their unified stance when Trump comes to Seoul for talks with Moon at the end of this month following the G-20 summit.