Seoul/Beijing: Both China’s Xi Jinping and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un have suffered from President Donald Trump’s penchant for walking away from talks. Now, he’ll have to worry about what they tell each other behind closed doors.
Xi’s state visit to Pyongyang on Thursday—the first such visit by a Chinese president in 14 years—will showcase a renewed camaraderie between two neighbours that battled the US together in the Korean War. The trip also sends Trump a pointed message about China’s broader influence ahead of potentially pivotal trade talks between the American president and Xi on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan.
For Kim, it’s another chance to demonstrate he’s got options beyond a third meeting with Trump, after the second ended in collapse in February. The North Korean leader may find a more receptive audience for complaints about US after Trump rejected China’s latest trade offer last month.
“Both leaders will likely seek to put pressure on Washington to conduct nuclear diplomacy with North Korea largely on North Korea’s terms —through a phased, step-by-step approach to denuclearization and including partial sanctions relief," said Mintaro Oba, a former US diplomat who worked on Korean Peninsula issues. “If anything, this visit will underscore the weakening regional support for the US pressure campaign."
Xi arrived in Pyongyang before noon local time Thursday accompanied by his wife, Peng Liyuan, according to the official Xinhua news agency. His entourage included top diplomats Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi, as well as He Lifeng, head of the National Development and Reform Commission.
The summit comes at dramatic point in the strategic dance between the three leaders—with US ties with both China and North Korea on the downswing. Until his recent breakdowns with Xi and Kim, Trump had managed to keep relations with either one or the other on the rise.
The problem for Trump is that China—as North Korea’s dominant trading partner and sole security ally—is key to maintaining the economic isolation the US is relying on to force Kim back to the negotiating table. While China has repeatedly affirmed its commitment to the international sanctions regime it helped erect against North Korea, the country has shown its limits amid the trade showdown with Trump.
On Tuesday, China joined Russia in blocking the UN Security Council committee that monitors North Korea sanctions from declaring that the country exceeded its annual import cap on refined petroleum products, AP said, citing two diplomats. The move came after the US and its allies accused North Korea of using illicit ship-to-ship transfers to bring in more oil, Bloomberg News reported, citing a US letter to the panel.
In a commentary published Wednesday in North Korea’s ruling party newspaper, Xi said he wished to “open a new chapter" in ties. He told Kim, whom he repeatedly referred to as “Comrade Kim Jong-un," that China supported North Korea’s “right direction for politically solving the issue on the Korean Peninsula."
Xi’s visit—representing his fifth meeting with Kim—is part of series of moves to repair ties strained by Kim’s weapons tests and other efforts to assert his independence after taking power in late 2011. The first meeting came in the early days of the US-China trade dispute last year, when Xi told Kim in Beijing that he had made a “strategic choice" to have a friendlier relationship.