GP Insights # 85, 22 June 2019
The Chinese President Xi Jinping visited North Korea during 20-21 June thereby becoming the first leader in 14 years after Hu Jintao to visit Pyongyang. The visit comes amid stalled talks with the United States over North Korea's nuclear programme on the one hand and the escalating trade war between China on the other. Acknowledging this, the North Korean mouthpiece said, "when serious and complicated changes are happening in international and regional situations the two leaders have agreed to promote close strategic communication" and develop their "common interests."
As for China, Xi referred to the nuclear program and urged all sides to "stick to peace talks to make even greater contributions to peace, stability and prosperity in the region." (According to China's official Xinhua News Agency)
What is the background?
At the current visit, Pyongyang was seen giving a grand welcome to Xi. In these 14 years, much had happened in the Korean peninsula. North Korea had carried out five nuclear tests and launched missiles capable of reaching the entire US mainland. After a flurry of diplomacy in 2018 and early 2019, including three meetings between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in and two summits between Kim and US President Donald Trump, currently, talks are stalled between the US and North Korea.
The second Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi in February had ended abruptly, with no agreement as the two were unable to overcome differences over the pace and scope of sanctions relief. Amid these developments, Xi's visit was full of political innuendos and expectations.
What does it mean?
Firstly, most have thought of Xi's visit as intended to become a signal to Trump of his influence with Kim, ahead of next week's G20 summit in Japan. In this, Pyongyang has also given a larger than life portrayal of his relations with China. Also, it has repeated it's call for Washington to adopt "a new method of calculation" for the negotiations.
Second, as Hong Min, a senior researcher at the South's state-run Korea Institute for National Unification said Xi's visit might give Kim a 'political and diplomatic opening to resume talks with the US again'. However, what was striking from the visit was the lack of any major announcements. According to an official spokesperson, Xi and Kim reached "extensive major consensus" on the China-North Korea relationship, thereby drawing on the past rhetoric of a strong relationship.
Thirdly, the visit had many people attending the march of Xi in Pyongyang with him receiving 21 gun salutes. However, the visit was shrouded with symbolism and this was important for both North Korea and China. For North Korea, it was to show the home audience about the necessity to keep the narrative of sanctions lifting and not failing out to US alive. North Korea had invested a lot in the US-North Korea summit amid the hopes of Korean unification. This would have been Kim's legacy had not been for the failed Hanoi summit. With Xi's visit once again, the talk of the future of crisis in the Korean Peninsula has returned.
For China, making no point (announcement) was the point. The two countries are engaged in separate disputes with President Trump — one over trade, the other over nuclear weapons.
Hence at this juncture, showing solidarity and just merely standing with Kim in place of what Trump could have done has garnered both "political support and encouragement for the party, government and people." The trade war has exhausted the party and in particular Xi's image to being a tough negotiator always emerging a winner. With this image Xi would be seen sharing the stage with world leaders at the G20 summit.
Sourina Bej is currently a Research Associate with ISSSP, NIAS. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org