For months, China seemed to be a side player as relations improved between North Korea and South Korea. Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea, kicked off the year with an address celebrating the completion of his nuclear deterrent after months of boasting about his increasing nuclear capability. In his speech, he also expressed interest in North Korea’s participation in the Winter Olympics. That, in turn, provided Moon Jae In, the president of South Korea, with the diplomatic opening he sought. What followed: an exchange of conciliatory gestures at the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, which set the stage for a meeting in Pyongyang between Kim and a team of South Korean envoys. Those same envoys then presented an invitation from Kim to meet with President Donald Trump, who had threatened North Korea’s total destruction; Trump immediately accepted. Seoul, it seemed, was in control of the fate of the Korean Peninsula.
Then, on Monday, speculative reports observed that an armored train from North Korea was en route to Beijing. Eventually, state media in China and North Korea confirmed that the visitor aboard the armored mystery train from North Korea to Beijing was none other than Kim Jong Un. For the first time in his six-year reign, Kim had finally left North Korean soil to meet the leader of his country’s oldest benefactor, China. During the visit, Kim reportedly told Xi Jinping, the president of China, what he had told South Korea’s presidential envoys: that he was ready to talk to the United States about his nuclear weapons. “It is our consistent stand to be committed to denuclearization on the peninsula, in accordance with the will of late President Kim Il Sung and late General Secretary Kim Jong Il,” Kim was quoted as having said, according to Xinhua.
The Beijing meeting showed that whatever may come of the upcoming inter-Korean and North Korea-U.S. summits, China will not be a peripheral player. Xi Jinping, fresh out of the National People’s Congress with an open-ended mandate as president of the People’s Republic, has flung himself into international diplomacy with gusto.
After news of the Xi-Kim meeting broke, one of the obvious questions was: Why now? (For comparison: Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, also waited six years before leaving North Korea to engage the outside world.) Kim likely just needed time. After eliminating his rivals, consolidating power, and achieving what he likely saw as the completion of a sufficiently credible nuclear deterrent, Kim finally felt ready to go abroad. Recent events also suggest that the Beijing-Pyongyang relationship, which is often strained, is on the mend. North Korea withheld from any ballistic missile provocations during China’s 19th Party Congress. Kim also congratulated Xi both after the Party Congress and the recently concluded National People’s Congress. In the past, by contrast, North Korea launched missiles as China held a range of significant international events, embarrassing and annoying Beijing.
But no matter the tensions of the moment, China and North Korea are as close and interdependent as “lips to teeth,” as Mao Zedong put it. Whatever the temporary hiccups in their relationship, China accounts for 90 percent of North Korea’s external trade, giving it extraordinary leverage over Pyongyang. The two countries also share a tight historical bond: Chinese soldiers fought, bled, and died on North Korean soil during the Korean War. Their 1961 Treaty of Friendship includes a mutual defense article—one that is thought to only apply now in the case that North Korea is attacked by an aggressor. (China would not back North Korea should it initiate a war.) Finally, for China, North Korea represents a useful buffer, separating it from the nearly 30,000 U.S. troops based on South Korean soil. Kim’s time with Xi underscored the unshakeable bond between Beijing and Pyongyang.
How should Washington interpret the Beijing meeting? For one thing, it should make abundantly clear to the Trump administration that, no matter what, North Korea and China will continue to share long-term strategic objectives. Neither country wants to see the end of the Kim regime, and both Beijing and Pyongyang seek to evict the United States from its alliances in Northeast Asia. It’s also worth remembering that Pyongyang’s interpretation of a “denuclearized Korean Peninsula” is not one where its arsenal has been “completely, verifiably, and irreversibly” dismantled as Washington would like, but one where it gives up its weapons in exchange for the United States withdrawing its nuclear shield from the Peninsula and leaving altogether. This would comport well with Chinese objectives.
The next few months are unpredictable and critical. Xi has accepted an invitation from Kim to visit North Korea. Meanwhile, the White House remains in chaos, anticipating the arrival of John Bolton as Trump’s new national security advisor. Bolton, infamous in North Korea for his disinterest in good-faith diplomacy and disarmament talks, could leave the U.S.-North Korea summit dead on arrival, potentially paving a dangerous path for the president toward conflict.
Trump, meanwhile, said in a tweet on Wednesday that he believes there is a “good chance” that Kim will denuclearize and give him a foreign policy win that evaded his predecessors. He attributes Kim’s willingness to talk to his “maximum pressure” campaign. But Kim’s post-New Year’s overture is one borne of a position of strength, not weakness—something the White House must recognize. When Kim tells Trump that he’s willing to denuclearize, he’ll likely follow that up with a price that the United States should not be willing to pay.
Much will depend, too, on the success of the late-April summit between Moon and Kim. If this meeting produces a concrete statement on denuclearization, with moderate preconditions, it could show the Trump administration that there may be a productive path forward with North Korea. Where might this path lead? To a destination somewhere between “complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization” and a disastrous nuclear war.