Xi Jinping’s Visit to North Korea: China is a Useful Leverage?
Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. (Photo: Reuters)
By Tai Wei Lim

Xi Jinping’s Visit to North Korea: China is a Useful Leverage?

Jul. 04, 2019  |     |  0 comments

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to North Korea in June 2019 grabbed the world’s attention. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un rolled out a grand welcome for the leader of his country’s closest ally. China is the main patron of North Korea. In the past, China was the main supplier of humanitarian aid and essential supplies like oil for the sustenance of the North Korean economy. But with Pyongyang exploding hydrogen bombs, firing and testing ballistic missiles that flew over Japan and creating a tense atmosphere in the Korean Peninsula, bilateral relations appeared to be somewhat strained. Beijing was compelled to go along with the rest of the international community to impose sanctions on North Korea and it was Beijing’s support of this resolution advocated by the US and the West that made economic sanctions possible and effective. The idea was to compel North Korea to be a responsible member of the international community.


In addition, after coming into power in 2011, Kim embarked on his quest to consolidate power and some say frays in bilateral relations with China were visible. Some cited incidents such as the execution of Kim’s uncle Jang Song-taek as well as the assassination of his half brother Kim Jong-nam. Both of these individuals were perceived to be close to Beijing. Kim Jong-nam was living in Macau and Beijing and transited through Malaysia. It has only been revealed relatively recently that he had apparently started becoming an informant for the US and South Koreans. In a ceremony to commemorate the end of WWII in 2015, former South Korean President Park Geun-hye was invited instead of Kim Jong-un. It created an awkward situation where Beijing was perceived as dissing its closest ally while cosying up to its closest ally’s rival.


Perhaps, one of the most troubling signs was Kim’s persistent efforts to hasten nuclear weapons development despite Beijing’s public disapproval. Thus, trouble was brewing in the bilateral relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang. The latest visit by Xi at the invitation of Kim put that to rest. After the initial years of perceived mistrust between Xi and Kim, the visit appeared to put such speculation at ease. The intense way in which the North Koreans welcomed Xi showed that all were forgotten and that the two were back together as friends.


In some ways, this was also a form of reciprocity visit since the North Korean leader had visited Beijing a number of times (4 trips since 2018), with his latest visit in January 2019. China helped greatly in providing support for the Trump-Kim summits, e.g. lending Premier Li Keqiang’s plane to Kim for flying to the Singapore summit. Chinese fighter jets escorted Kim’s entourage and plane as it flew through Chinese airspace for Singapore. For the Hanoi summit, the Chinese also gave access to Kim’s armored train to ply through the Chinese subcontinental space to reach Hanoi from North Korea.


After the failure of the Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi, North Korea perceived its position as one of international vulnerability (Kim even executed some of his closest aides for the failure of the Hanoi talks) and coveted some support for its re-integration into the global economy and to seek respect for its nuclear status. In terms of respect, Kim’s recent visit to Hanoi where he received a red carpet treatment from the Vietnamese preserved much “face” for the North Korean leader. Xi’s visit added a further boost. Both augmented the image and idea of a socialist fraternity between Pyongyang and Hanoi as well as Beijing and Pyongyang.

The leverage usefulness of Beijing for Kim appeared to be plainly stated. In Kim’s new year address at the beginning of 2019, he had warned of seeking an alternative way if negotiations with the US went south.

Pyongyang mobilized large numbers of North Koreans and rolled out their red carpet to welcome Xi. The red carpet treatment reflected the rare visit by a standing Chinese leader. Xi is probably the most powerful leader in China since Mao, as he is no longer constrained by term limits for his presidency. (It is not Xi’s first visit to Pyongyang. He was there as Vice President in 2008). In this way, Xi’s visit is seen as a reaffirmation of trust and confidence in the bilateral relationship. China’s Central China Television covered the visit in great details and fanfare. The official occasion for the visit and the festivities was the 70th anniversary of establishment of ties between China and North Korea.


The visit was conceptualized to reflect the close ties between China and North Korea and their founding fathers. In other words, the narrative was that the 70 years displayed continuity in friendship since the establishment of the two countries. Mao Zedong and Kim Il-sung were historically close comrades during the Cold War and their troops had even fought together in a war. Symbolically, the visit was paralleled with fraternity that used to exist in the past, to the extent that the friendship was being described as a relationship as close as gum and teeth. The desire for such close relationships appeared to persist with successive generations, culminating with Xi’s visit to Pyongyang.


North Korea is a proud nation and has coveted respect from other countries for its existence. The Xi visit appeared to have provided that kind of legitimacy from a neighboring major world power. North Korean will never accept a subordinate status to China but hopes to gain respect from a global economic power like China. Friendship with an established major nuclear country like China, which is an official member of the nuclear club, helps Pyongyang in its aspirations to be accepted as a de facto nuclear power. Perhaps, Pyongyang has also sought some form of guarantee and defense/military umbrella from the Chinese, even as it discusses the possibility of denuclearization with the Americans. Pragmatically and symbolically, China is a useful leverage in Pyongyang’s quest to negotiate with the US for lifting of United Nations’ sanctions.


Pyongyang may also potentially provide China with a leverage in China’s own trade talks with the US to avoid a trade war. Xi would be meeting up with US President Donald Trump to discuss trade issues related to the world’s most serious and ongoing trade war, where the US was seen to have the upper hand. The regal treatment of Xi by Kim also provided useful contrast for the 2 million-people anti-extradition protests that went on in Hong Kong during Xi’s visit to North Korea.


The leverage usefulness of Beijing for Kim appeared to be plainly stated. In Kim’s new year address at the beginning of 2019, he had warned of seeking an alternative way if negotiations with the US went south. He made such dramatic statements from an unusual TV broadcast, sitting on an armchair and speaking live to the audience. Many perceived China and/or Russia to be those alternatives that Kim mentioned. Meanwhile, Xi’s visit to North Korea was met with a spectrum of views in the US, from support to suspicions of China’s intentions. Many in the US were convinced that the show of fraternity between Pyongyang and Beijing was meant for the American leadership, to indicate the importance of Beijing in any resolution concerning the Korean Peninsula.

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