Ahead of the second Trump-Kim summit, North Korea leader Kim Jong-un made a visit to Beijing between January 8-9, 2019. As the international media is abuzz over the second summit, there are at least five narratives surrounding the Beijing visit.
The first narrative is the simplest explanation, which is that it is a routine visit and nothing is out of the ordinary. Before Kim met with US President Donald J. Trump in 2018, he also met with Chinese President Xi Jinping twice. There is nothing unusual about the recent visit in 2019. These bilateral talks are assumed to be frank closed-door discussions where the two leaders communicated with each other on areas of concern and national interests, especially if a peace deal is in sight — an end to the first and last conflict of the Cold War era.
The two leaders may have touched base on issues like US troops coming up to the Sino-North Korea border, along the Yalu River. Beijing was already infuriated when US based the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Air Defense) missile system in Seoul and this incident nearly broke Beijing-Seoul relations and brought it to a standstill. It was resolved only when Seoul promised not to deploy (a freeze on deployment) a second THAAD missile system under the Moon Jae-in administration, widely seen as a pacifist, left-leaning, liberal regime. Beijing was also distracted and got into bigger troubles with the US in bilateral economic conflicts and contestations over the world and regional orders.
The Beijing visit may also concern Chinese interests in economic development in North Korea, since the South Koreans and the international community are interested to invest in North Korea. Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and private sector firms want to be present if UN sanctions are lifted partially or completely. These SOEs may also be interested in special projects since Beijing has supported Pyongyang monetarily for so long. Pyongyang may also be interested to get an update on the Sino-US trade conflict and gather intelligence and information so that they are able to figure out the way to navigate geopolitically between the world’s two most powerful economies, now at a low ebb in their bilateral relations.
The second narrative is based on symbolism and the timing of Kim’s visit. It is related to the fact that Sino-US are having ongoing trade talks. Therefore, the appearance of Kim may indicate how close North Korea and China are to each other. It therefore demonstrates to the US the significance of Beijing’s position in any denuclearization and peace efforts on the Korean Peninsula. If this narrative hold, the two may be playing a game. The North Koreans may be using this visit to pursue what Kim calls an “alternative path” in his New Year speech.
In the speech, Kim reiterated his desire to make efforts towards denuclearization. However, he also warned that Pyongyang expected reciprocity. In the event North Korea does not get any reciprocity from the US in terms of partial or full lifting of UN sanctions, Pyongyang may then turn towards an “alternative path”. This could mean gravitating closer to China. Thus, both countries want to use the ongoing denuclearization process as a bargaining chip for managing relations with US. Another observation related to this narrative is the timing of Kim’s birthday with the Beijing visit. According to cultural interpretations, Northeast Asians generally prefer to spend birthdays with the closest members of their family, relatives or friends. Therefore, Kim visiting Beijing and spending his birthday with the Chinese leadership elites may send a symbolic message to the West.
The third narrative centers around Sino-North Korea bilateral relations. Beijing is Pyongyang’s most important ally. After China deployed “volunteers” against UN forces during the Korean War (1950 to 1953), Beijing has remained on good terms with Pyongyang. Their ties are often described as chunhan chiwang or “as close as lips and teeth”, which means that if the lips are cold, the teeth would also suffer. Pyongyang and Beijing are intertwined in a tight relationship as Pyongyang depends on Beijing for material aid. After the Sino-Soviet split of 1959, Beijing and Pyongyang remain as close allies. Even after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Beijing has continued to prop up Pyongyang.
Rivals of Trump and Pyongyang-skeptics demanded more proof of denuclearization, a timetable of denuclearization and other reciprocal goodies before relieving UN sanctions partially or fully. Therein lies the pressure for the second Trump-Kim summit to produce some results or least the timetable to secure those tangible results.
Beijing’s largesse and friendship are also borne out of its strategic interests. For many years, Beijing did not want to see US and US-allied troops located at the border of China along the Yalu River. Beijing wanted to keep a buffer, a role that North Korea played. Thus, even at the most difficult of times during the impoverished post-WWII period, Sino-Soviet isolationism, the economically challenging Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution eras, reformist China, the rise of China and China as an economic superpower, Beijing has continued to stand by Pyongyang. However, when Kim succeeded his father and came into power, he committed a series of acts that appeared to endanger this lips and teeth bilateral relations.
First, Kim executed his pro-Beijing uncle Jang Song-thaek. Jang was unceremoniously dragged out of a meeting (the process televised) and executed. This effectively removed the pro-Beijing power faction from influencing the North Korean elite leadership. Next, he assassinated his half-brother Kim Jong-nam at the Kuala Lumpur airport by misleading a Vietnamese and an Indonesian to apply a weapons-grade nerve agent on his half-brother’s face. Kim Jong-nam was known to be supported by the Chinese. He resided in exile in Macau and Beijing with appearances in Hong Kong. In the whole time, Kim Jong-un refused to meet with the Chinese top leadership, plunging bilateral relations between the two countries to the lowest point. The meetings in Beijing in 2018 and 2019 appeared to address this, coalescing forces within Beijing and Pyongyang for the same goal of dealing with the US and its allies. Both sides put on a good show for the 70th anniversary of bilateral relations in 2018.
The fourth narrative focuses on economic deals. China (along with Russia) had been pressing the US for partial lifting of sanctions and some compromises made to the American CVID (Complete Verifiable Irreversible Denuclearization) benchmark. Beijing, Pyongyang and Moscow had some understanding that Pyongyang had apparently made some efforts towards denuclearization and were keen to see some reciprocity on Washington’s side. The efforts cited include destroying/collapsing the entrance of a tunnel that leads to the test site, self-restraint on missile testing, especially those that fly over Japan’s Hokkaido airspace, self-control on displaying missiles menacingly in Stalinist style communist mass parades. On top of that, Pyongyang had also returned the ashes of US servicemen who died in North Korea during the Korean War.
US experts were not convinced that the development of nuclear warheads had stopped although missile tests seemed to have ceased. Rivals of Trump and Pyongyang-skeptics demanded more proof of denuclearization, a timetable of denuclearization and other reciprocal goodies before relieving UN sanctions partially or fully. Therein lies the pressure for the second Trump-Kim summit to produce some results or least the timetable to secure those tangible results. The US also cited the fact that Washington had unilaterally stopped the annual exercises between South Korea and the US military forces (the US President had tweeted specifically that it was his order to do so). This may be one of the biggest challenges anticipated in the second Trump-Kim meeting.
Finally, the last narrative focuses on Kim’s desires to normalize the image of North Korea. In his 2018 trips to China, Kim made many unprecedented moves. First, he travelled to meet Xi after nearly 6 years of non-communication. In his second trip, he was seen strolling along a beach with Xi. And more importantly, he flew his antiquated but workable private jet to China, dispelling years of fear of flying by his predecessors with a single act. Then on New Year’s Day of 2019, he appeared in a Western suit speaking from a Western-style armchair, looking relaxed and chilled. Such acts could be due to Kim’s wish for the normalization of the North Korean image in preparation for rejoining the international community.