BY: ANDY LAUB
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un made his fourth visit to China last week for a four-day summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping. President Trump and Kim are expected to meet in the next few months as well. Kim has had this line-up of meetings before; he made two trips to China before the first summit with President Trump in Singapore.
While reportedly Xi and Kim don’t get along personally, both see the importance of the marriage of convenience of the Sino-DPRK relationship. China is a major power in the region and North Korea’s closest ally; China can help if talks continue to stall or eventually fail. China can also help the North evade sanctions. By continuing its economic and trade relationship with North Korea, the North can develop its economy and effectively unplug the United States’ “maximum pressure” campaign regarding sanctions, which Kim detests.
Previously, Kim had kept international diplomatic relationships at bay while he focused on building up his nuclear weapons program. However, as Kim heads into his eighth year as leader, he has built up an alliance with China; this has given Kim more leverage in talks with the United States. As North Korea’s news agency KCNA reported: “Xi Jinping said that the legitimate issues raised by the DPRK are rightful demands and that he fully agrees that the DPRK’s reasonable interests should be justly resolved.” Kim is also laying the groundwork in case talks fail having its main partner to fall back on and give himself room to blame the United States. China continued to express support for US-DPRK talks.
As Alexander Smith wrote in his recent piece for NBC, Kim Jong-Un’s China visit shows Trump he’s ‘not the only game in town.’ Kim is sending a very clear message to Trump and the entire world that he is a responsible global player who is willing to engage, but on his own terms. As Senior Brooking Institute Fellow Jung Pak puts it: “Kim’s trip to Beijing and his performance on January 1 showcased a confident North Korean leader prepared to continue engaging in diplomacy, but on his own terms and in ways that will shake the alliance between Washington and Seoul and further weaken Beijing’s resolve on sanctions implementation.”
Kim Jong-Un is also showing how seriously he is taking these diplomatic efforts compared to Trump, who said before Singapore he didn’t “have to prepare that much.” A lot of experts underestimated Kim Jong-Un when he came on to the world stage with his diplomatic overtures; the notion that he was just some “crazy kid” when he first assumed power in 2011 has since been disproved. Rather, while still a brutal dictator, he has shown himself to be incredibly smart and strategic as he plays geopolitical chess. As Kim continues to engage with China and South Korea, the United States finds itself in a trade war with China with the historic US-ROK alliance strained over sanctions. Kim’s engagement with the US-fearing South Korean President Moon Jae-in may be too fast, however, Kim is playing these leaders off one another to help solidify his own power and political relevance, while ensuring North Korea’s longer-term survival. As Kim continues to try and exacerbate tensions between the US and South Korea and has meetings with President Xi while planning future summits with President Trump, he gains confidence as a leader. This may make him push harder for sanctions relief from the United States as he continues to set a diplomatic agenda on his own terms, playing a longer geostrategic game, which is exactly what his most recent trip to China showed.
Andy Laub is the Director for Partnerships and North Korea Analyst at Political Insights. He also serves as the International Chapters Director for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Andy received his Master of Science in Global Affairs from New York University.
Photo Credit: North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) via Reuters
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