Kim Jong-un shows deft touch by rebuilding ties with China ahead of talks

Kim plays on Xi’s stability fears during his first foreign trip as North Korean leader

 North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his wife are accompanied by his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping and his wife at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Photograph: Korea News Service via AP

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his wife are accompanied by his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping and his wife at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Photograph: Korea News Service via AP

 

China’s closeness to North Korea blends communist ideology, a delicate geopolitical balance and hard cash, so it is not surprising Kim Jong-un should make a trip to Beijing his first diplomatic outing.

The two communist states border one another, North Korea is a buffer between Chinese territory and the US’s military allies of South Korea and Japan, while China is North Korea’s main economic backer, responsible for at least 90 per cent of its trade.

As his train chugged back across the border to North Korea, Kim’s first foreign trip since he took over the reins from his father in 2011 appeared to have been a success. He had smoothed over tensions with China by promising to deal with the nuclear issue and by recognising the importance of their mutual ties.

Grip on power

“China prizes stability on its borders and wishes to avoid both a US military presence moving closer to its territory and any kind of instability that would result if the North Korean government lost its grip on power,” said Alexander Dukalskis, assistant professor in the school of politics and international relations at University College Dublin.

“For these reasons China has strong incentives to involve itself in shaping outcomes on the Korean peninsula,” said Dukalskis, who specialises in authoritarian states and Asian politics.

Chinese president Xi Jinping and his wife sit down for lunch with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his wife in Beijing. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Chinese president Xi Jinping and his wife sit down for lunch with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his wife in Beijing. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Xi Jinping and Kim underlined their close socialist connection, and underlined how ideologically in tune they were.

“Socialism with Chinese characteristics has entered a new era, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s socialist construction has also ushered in a new historical period,” Xi enthused.

Despite all they have in common, North Korea’s relationship with China has been frazzled since Pyongyang staged its first nuclear test in 2006. China felt left out of the loop as far as the nuclear programme was concerned.

North Korea was outraged when China backed the United Nations Security Council’s sanctions and resents that Beijing appears to be playing along with what it sees as an international campaign against North Korea.

The visit does complicate the relations between the countries involved in the nuclear crisis – the two Koreas, China, the US, Russia and Japan, and this is no doubt intentional.

“North Korea has long been adept at playing great powers against one another and warming or cooling relations as necessary,” said Dukalskis. “Right now North Korea probably sees value in having China on board as it goes into a period of talks with South Korea and the US.”

Diplomacy unfolds

Paul Haenle, a former White House National Security Council official who now directs the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy in Beijing, reckons China was probably uncomfortable with the idea of Kim meeting South Korea’s Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump before he had met Xi for the first time.

“Beijing has significant interests and huge stakes in any outcomes of upcoming summits and did not want to be on the sidelines as a spectator as this important diplomacy unfolds,” said Haenle.

There is talk that Kim’s next foreign trip could be to Russia to meet a presumably receptive Vladimir Putin. If he succeeds in wooing Moon in April, then Trump in May, could Kim Jong-un emerge as the smartest international player in the whole saga?

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