China has reinserted itself into the middle of the simmering North Korean crisis.
This is the significance of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent surprise visit to Pyongyang. What it means for the on-again-off-again bromance between North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump remains unclear.
The two-day visit marked the first time in 14 years that a Chinese leader has made the trek to North Korea. Usually, such meetings take place in China, an arrangement favoured by Beijing in order to demonstrate the power imbalance between the two Communist countries.
But this time, Xi swallowed his pride and made the journey himself.
While China is North Korea’s most important ally, relations between the two countries can be fraught. Xi has not hidden his distaste for Kim’s nuclear sabre-rattling.
Kim, in return, has bristled at being treated as a supplicant.
Kim’s unexpected pivot toward South Korea in 2018 and his historic summit with Trump that year can be explained in part by his desire to reduce North Korea’s dependence on China.
By agreeing to economic sanctions against Pyongyang, while at the same time selectively ignoring them, China had made itself virtually the sole arbiter of the North Korean economy.
If Kim became too uppity, Xi needed only to tighten the border a bit. Conversely, when Kim co-operated, border controls were unofficially loosened.
The result was a North Korea that furthered China’s strategic interests — a country that was dangerous to the United States, but not too dangerous, one that was poor, but not poor enough to destabilize Kim’s regime.
For Kim, a rapprochement with the U.S. would give him a way out of this box.
Job No. 1 was to transform North Korea into a nuclear power to give it bargaining leverage with the U.S. Kim accomplished that in 2017.
Job No. 2 was to negotiate a deal with the U.S. to ease economic sanctions. And Trump’s erratic presidency seemed to offer Kim his best chance at doing that.
The story of the Kim-Trump bromance is well known. Both leaders abandoned their reckless rhetoric. Instead, they pledged their undying affection for one another.
At their first summit, in 2018 in Singapore, they agreed to work toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, but without specifying what that might mean.
Their second summit in Hanoi in 2019, ended in failure after Trump insisted that Kim give up all his nuclear weapons in exchange for an end to sanctions.
Meanwhile, time was beginning to run out. Trump was becoming increasingly focused on Iran and, to a lesser extent, Venezuela. He launched a ruinous trade war against China and threatened Europe with the same.
There was simply no time for his good buddy Kim.
In April, Kim journeyed to Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin. But there was only limited joy there. So it was back to China.
By meeting Kim on his home turf, Xi allowed the North Korean leader to save some face. Xi also went out of his way to praise Kim for his handling of the economy.
But the Chinese leader made it clear that there was to be no more freelancing. Beijing would have to be involved in any future plans for the Korean Peninsula.
In an article that tellingly was published in the North Korean regime’s official party newspaper, Xi wrote of the need to devise a “grand plan” to bring permanent peace to the Korean Peninsula.
Development of such a plan, he wrote, would of course involve China.
Thomas Walkom is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.