Kim Jong Un traveled to Beijing Tuesday for his third meeting in as many months with Chinese President Xi Jinping. This time Kim arrives with leverage, having just convinced the U.S. to halt its war games with South Korea in return for a vague pledge to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.
Kim will spend two days in Beijing, debriefing Xi on what happened during the summit with President Trump last week and discussing how to “deepen China-North Korea relations.” But analysts expect Kim to use his newfound leverage to persuade his closest economic ally to push for sanctions relief.
Footage of Xi greeting Kim and his wife was broadcast by Chinese state media, a break from normal protocol where the North Korean dictator’s visits are only confirmed after he has departed, another sign of Kim's new confidence on the world stage.
Kim’s visit comes hours after Trump threatened to impose a 10 percent tariff on $200 billion of Chinese goods — a move Beijing blasted as “blackmail.” U.S. businesses are now bracing a response, and global stock markets tumbled Tuesday in anticipation of Beijing's next move.
“These tariffs will go into effect if China refuses to change its practices, and also if it insists on going forward with the new tariffs that it has recently announced,” Trump said in a statement on Monday.
Sitting at the center of this battle is Kim and North Korea. On one side is their closest economic ally China, and on the other their new friends in Washington who have given huge concessions in the hope that denuclearization will follow. The problem for Trump and his administration is that Kim won’t do anything without the express support of China.
“North Korea can’t make any serious geopolitical moves without China’s assent,” Robert Kelly, an expert in international relations at Pusan National University in South Korea told VICE News. “China is the key to sanctions-enforcement or not.”
Kelly added that Kim’s third trip to China since March just reinforces his belief that “the road to Pyongyang goes through Beijing.”
Following the meeting with Kim last week, Trump declared that the threat from North Korea was now gone, despite the fact that Pyongyang had not agreed to complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization, something Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said prior to the summit was the “only outcome U.S. will accept.”
It is likely that Kim will want to make some deal with Washington over the denuclearization process, but only after getting the approval of Xi first.
“Kim is serious about doing some sort of deal with the American president and the trips represent his attempt to negotiate the parameters of any future deal with Beijing, which will have the final say,” John Hemmings, Asia director at the Henry Jackson Society, a British foreign policy think tank, told VICE News.
For North Korea, the escalating trade war couldn’t come at a better time, as it should be able to leverage its improved position on the international stage to its advantage. But for Trump and the White House, it is not good timing.
“The good news for the Kims is that this [trade war] drives China back toward them, which naturally no one on Team Trump thought about because no one prepared for Singapore,” Kelly said. “Honestly, Trump has no idea what he is doing.”
But not everyone agrees that Kim is completely in trawl to Xi and his decisions. “Kim runs his own foreign policy and Trump may try to offer him a deal that he cannot reject,” Zhang Baohui, a political scientist at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, told VICE News.
However, Zhang did concede that China may use North Korea as a pawn in its trade war with the U.S. pointing out that “Trump did tone down the trade issue when he needed Beijing's help.”
Cover image: People bicycle past a giant TV screen broadcasting the meeting of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Chinese President Xi Jinping during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Tuesday, June 19, 2018. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)