The landmark ‘secret’ meeting between North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier this week in Beijing — marking the first time Kim set foot outside North Korea since he took power in 2011, is a significant development, indeed. Taking place just weeks ahead of a possible summit between Kim and US president Donald Trump to negotiate a curb on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programme, it represents a subtle signal that there can be no US deal with North Korea without China’s involvement.
With Xi having recently been empowered by the Chinese Communist Party to be China’s head of State for life, this is his way to assert his new role of an arbiter of world affairs. The tenor of the Chinese statement after the meeting enhances Kim Jong-un’s leverage in the upcoming talks with Trump. It shows that Kim, who was a victim of isolation in the world at the instance of US, has a friend in Beijing. Kim’s visit to Beijing was also designed to show the US and South Korea that Kim has his own trump card as he attempts to push for sanctions relief and recognition of North Korea as a legitimate nuclear power. Whether Trump would succumb to such pressure tactics only time will tell but seeing the US President’s penchant for brinkmanship, there could well be reverse consequences of further escalation.
To seem like an elder statesman, Xi noted that China will continue to play a constructive role on the issue (of talks) and work with all parties, including North Korea, toward the thaw of the situation on the Peninsula. The “situation on the Peninsula” refers to not only the tension over North Korea’s nuclear programme, but the presence of the US troops to the south and the outlying waters where US and South Korean militaries regularly conduct naval exercises. To the US, denuclearisation is that of North Korea. To Kim Jong-un, denuclearisation applies to the whole peninsula, which includes the South. The thaw in the US ties with North Korea will not be easy to sustain considering that Trump’s newest national security adviser, John Bolton, is a known hawk, who believes that the Kim regime’s appeal for talks masks a ploy to bide time until its nuclear programme is up and running. Yet, the stakes for the Trump administration are high and he can ill afford to be seen as a failed strategist.