Inkstone
    Mar
    28
    2018
    Mar
    28
    2018
    Why Kim Jong-un is trying to get back on China’s good side
    Why Kim Jong-un is trying to get back on China’s good side
    POLITICS

    Why Kim Jong-un is trying to get back on China’s good side

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    by
    Alan Wong
    Alan Wong
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    For what was said to be an unofficial trip, North Korea's Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un meant serious business when he visited Beijing this week.

    Yes, it really was Kim.

    As an armored train carrying the dictator left China on Wednesday morning, secrecy gave way to elaborate coverage in state media of Kim's “unofficial visit” to the Chinese capital.

    The North Korean leader told Chinese president Xi Jinping that he was ready to talk – with the US, its mortal enemy, and about denuclearization, something that China has long supported.

    Kim Jong-un and his wife Ri Sol-ju with Xi Jinping and wife Peng Liyuan at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
    Kim Jong-un and his wife Ri Sol-ju with Xi Jinping and wife Peng Liyuan at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Photo: Xinhua/Ju Peng
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    It was Kim’s first known trip abroad after he took power in 2011, and it happened just weeks before agreed meetings with his South Korean counterpart, President Moon Jae-in, late next month – and possibly with President Trump by the end of May. 

    China’s good graces

    It’s no wonder that Kim met with Xi before any other heads of state, say analysts.

    After a period of frosty ties between North Korea and China, Kim wanted to get back on Beijing's good side, says Bruce Bennett, senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation and a specialist in Northeast Asia.

    “He had been waiting for an invitation to come see Xi.”

    During the four-day visit, Xi gave Kim a warm welcome, hosting a banquet and a luncheon for the North Korean leader and his wife, Ri Sol-ju, as well as treating them to an art performance and a science showcase.

    Xi Jinping meets holds talks with Kim Jong-un at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
    Xi Jinping meets holds talks with Kim Jong-un at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Photo: Xinhua/Yao Dawei

    Kim – referred to warmly as “comrade” by China's state news agency – said that he had wanted to meet “in time” with Xi in person “out of comradeship and moral responsibility.”

    “In this spring full of happiness and hopes, I believe my first meeting with General Secretary Xi Jinping will yield abundant fruits of friendship” between the two countries, Kim said at the banquet, according to Chinese state news agency Xinhua.

    “A changed man”

    For North Korea, spring couldn't come soon enough.

    Last year China, historically North Korea's biggest ally, joined the US and others in punishing North Korea's nuclear provocations with toughened sanctions. 

    Group 5
    If he gives up his nuclear weapons, what asset does he have which makes him a peer of anybody?
    -
    Bruce Bennett, defense analyst 

    The isolated country must have felt the pinch, suggests Bennett.

    “What Kim undoubtedly asked Xi to do was to communicate to the US that he's really a changed man, he's really prepared to give up his nuclear weapons," he says.

    A Chinese soldier gestures to stop a photographer from taking pictures outside the North Korean embassy in Beijing during Kim’s visit to Beijing.
    A Chinese soldier gestures to stop a photographer from taking pictures outside the North Korean embassy in Beijing during Kim’s visit to Beijing. Photo: EPA-EFE/Wu Hong

    Earlier this month, Kim invited Trump to meet for negotiations over North Korea's nuclear program, reopening a window that was closed in 2009 as six-party talks failed. 

    Trump swiftly said yes to the invitation, delivered by a South Korean envoy in the White House.

    The Chinese leadership was “surprised and concerned” when the meeting was announced, says Thomas Byrne, president of the Korea Society, despite publicly expressing support for it.

    China, which chaired the failed six-party talks from 2003 to 2009, “wants to ensure that Kim Jong-un understands well its interests and concerns before Kim meets President Moon and President Trump,” says Byrne.

    “A changed man” – really?

    North Korea has long seen nuclear weapons as a way to stand tall among the world powers, and the only way to protect itself against countries like the US.

    “He's now doing a 180 in terms of what he's saying," says Bennett, who is skeptical that Kim is prepared to give up his nuclear program.

    “The question is, though: if he gives up his nuclear weapons, what asset does he have which makes him a peer of anybody, that makes him other than a third-world minor country?”

    A motorcade rumored to be that of Kim Jong-un passes Tiananmen Square.
    A motorcade rumored to be that of Kim Jong-un passes Tiananmen Square. Photo: Simon Song

    That question will have to be answered in the summits in coming weeks.

    What's different about these talks compared to the six-party talks is that “there is a recognition by the US and South Korean governments not to repeat the mistakes of the past and to continue to exert maximum pressure” on the North, says Byrne of the Korea Society.

    North Korea's ruling party and its military have a limit on what they can tolerate from the sanctions, he suggests – and Kim doesn't want to find out just where that line lies.

    ALAN WONG
    ALAN WONG
    Alan is editor at Inkstone. He was previously a digital editor for The New York Times in Hong Kong.

    ALAN WONG
    ALAN WONG
    Alan is editor at Inkstone. He was previously a digital editor for The New York Times in Hong Kong.

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