By Shiva Shankar Pandian
As Beijing went into a security lockdown, diplomatic quarters were clouded by speculations and surprise accompanied by what experts described as a strange, highly mysterious, visit by the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
To the observers of the North Korean issue, prospects of this abruptly planned visit of Kim to Beijing including a meeting with Xi raises questions on what North Korea is planning to signal, an unexpected surge of diplomacy after years of provoking nuclear threats on bombing the US territories interspersed by potential missile tests.
The visit followed the relative success of North Korea’s diplomacy at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Kim Yo-jong, Kim’s sister led a delegation to the games, clearing the decks to direct conversations with the South and an offer to talk with the US. Talks are scheduled first with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea in April and later with President Trump, perhaps in May.
Improving a strained relationship
According to various sources, Kim did his schooling in Switzerland near Bern, he had never traveled abroad since becoming the North Korea’s leader in 2011 following his father’s death. Nor he has never met any head of state or leader so far.
China’s support for North Korea dates back to the Korean War when Beijing flooded the Korean Peninsula with its army to aid its northern ally. Ever since the war, Beijing has continuously lent its political and economic backing to the North Korean leaders who are predecessors of Kim Jong-un.
China has always been a vital trading partner and the main source of food and energy to North Korea. It helped sustain Kim Jong-un’s regime and has historically opposed the international sanctions on North Korea till recently.
Kim’s plan for nuclear tests and missile programs have complicated its relationship with its long-term partner. With subsequent nuclear tests, Beijing deliberately gestured a shift in tone from diplomacy to sanctions.
Making China to join the west chorus of torpedoing North Korea with harsh sanctions, at the same time, Beijing has also been cautious not to press North Korea hard enough to risk a regime collapse, which would eventually lead to the formation of a puppet government under an American spell, and a refugee influx across the border, as both will create a tension on China’s border.
However, China continues to have sizeable economic relations with its Northern ally. Yet, China upholds some of the international sanctions against North Korea and increasingly poised to take some limited measures to squeeze its neighbor economically. For instance, China has refused to import North Korean coal, which is in accord with UN sanctions, and also to export to North Korea all the oil that it needs to fuel its ramshackle economy.
Recent high-level shuffles at the White House such as John Bolton incoming NSA, whose goal is not just denuclearization, but regime change, may have put some gravity on North Korea before the talks.
Making Beijing a participant again
Kim Jong-un’s surprise visit to Beijing makes one thing clear which was overlooked amid a whirlwind of diplomatic events. China, its most trusted ally had been left on the sidelines in the recent diplomatic breakthroughs concerning North Korea. Even in the upcoming talks, China has no direct role, a mere bystander.
For China, meeting with their strategic neighbor makes certain that it will not be sidelined during the talks or any deal struck between the planned US-North Korea-South Korea talks.
For North Korea, it’s a signal to Washington and Seoul that Pyongyang has other options and that they are not isolated. Getting Beijing on its side, gives a strategic advantage to North Korea in any talks with the West.
Senior analysts say Kim is repeating a pattern made by his father, Kim Jong-il, who visited Beijing before his 2000 summit meeting with South Korea’s then president, Kim Dae-Jung. Kim Jong-il was then about six years into his tenure as North Korea’s leader, just as his son is now.
Kim’s Beijing visit gives a strong position in the upcoming planned meeting with Trump, said Wang Peng, a North Korea expert at the Charhar Institute, Beijing.
“North Korea is seeking assurances,” he added. “They want to quickly mend ties with China so that they have more leeway with the United States and they have more confidence in a good outcome.”
“At the end of the day, China’s got huge interests and it was not comfortable not being at the table,” said Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center in Beijing and a White House representative to the Six-Party Talks from 2007-2009.
China wants to be seen as a warden of peace and stability in the region and also a viable player in global diplomacy as it fights with the US for influence in Asia and Indo-Pacific.
“Kim Jong un’s first meeting with a head of state was with the Chinese president, which frankly from the Chinese perspective is exactly the right thing,” said Paul Haenle.
Denuclearization – or not
Xinhua reported that Kim mentioned ‘denuclearization’ numerous times, but none of what he said gave evidence of a change of policy from the North Korean side.
“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” Xinhua reported as Kim said.
“The issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved, if South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace,” said Kim according to Xinhua.
When Kim Jong-un communicated to the US that he is ready for talks with Washington, a South Korean envoy stated a message that Kim wanted to talk on ‘denuclearization’.
KCNA, the official news media of North Korea never mentioned a word on ‘Denuclearization’. North Korea is prepared to denuclearize and give up its nuclear ambitions, but at what cost is yet to be deciphered. In simple words, no one knows what North Korea demands in exchange for denuclearization.
Will the sanctions be eased favoring North Korea?
North Korea has realized that it cannot survive a harsh and sustained economic sanction, and would need China’s backing for easing of trade restrictions. Now, Kim Jong-un could seek for a de-escalation of hardline sanctions as a concession for agreeing to talks.
“He’s playing one superpower against another,” said Xia Yafeng, a historian at Long Island University.
If what Kim says is true, that he has nukes capable of striking their archenemy, the US, then it is time for him to focus on rebuilding, already in shamble, North Korean economy, for which he needs the aid of China. The current visit would provide some gain on this angle.
Above all, the visit before the planned talks sends a clear signal to the west and the rest of the world that the “Blood Brothers” for all the bad blood separating them, remain allies forever.
The visit will have weight on the upcoming talks with Washington and Seoul.
Shiva Shankar Pandian is an independent columnist based in New Delhi. He holds MA in International Relations (with specializations in US Foreign Policy) from Annamalai University, India. He regularly writes on foreign relations of the United States and India.