[News analysis] Kim Jong-un’s motivation behind China visits

Posted on : 2019-01-09 16:50 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Kim likely seeks regime security guarantee from Xi
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and first lady Ri Sol-ju prepare to board a special train bound for China in Pyongyang on Jan. 7. The scene was broadcasted by Korea Central Television (KCTV) on Jan. 8. (KCTV/Yonhap News)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and first lady Ri Sol-ju prepare to board a special train bound for China in Pyongyang on Jan. 7. The scene was broadcasted by Korea Central Television (KCTV) on Jan. 8. (KCTV/Yonhap News)

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s fourth visit to China occurred after a series of comments by US President Donald Trump kindled expectations about a second North Korea-US summit. Before holding the summit with Trump, Kim apparently resolved to make the first move and verify the “safety valve” of China as a way of managing the risk entailed by the summit.

First of all, Kim’s visit to China can be read as a signal that preparations are underway for the second North Korea-US summit. Kim already announced his commitment to a second summit with Trump in his New Year’s address when he said he’s “ready to sit down again with the American president at any time.” The fact that Kim has now gone to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping can be taken to mean that he’s ready to deliberate the specifics of his negotiating strategy.

“I think it’s safe to assume that Chairman Kim has resolved to offer something extra to President Trump during their second summit,” said a former senior government official who is familiar with Korean Peninsula affairs.

Considering that Kim has often visited China around the time of major political events, precedence adds weight to the possibility that the second North Korea-US summit will be held sooner than expected. Kim’s first visit to China in Mar. 2018 took place before the first inter-Korean summit last year on Apr. 27 and before the third plenary session of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) on Apr. 20 that formalized the shift away from the two-track policy of simultaneously developing nuclear weapons and the economy. Kim’s second visit to China on May 7 and 8 took place prior to the first North Korea-US summit on June 12, and his third visit to China on June 19 and 20 came shortly afterward.

“All three [of Kim’s visits to China] have taken place around the time of the North Korea-US summit. In that context, we can regard North Korea-US talks as being imminent,” said Lee Gwan-se, director of the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University.

There are five or six goals that Kim can be seen as hoping to achieve through this visit to China. The first appears to be gauging Xi’s willingness to serve as a “safety valve” in order to spread out the risks of “taking the bull by the horns.” During Kim’s third visit to China, Xi promised Kim that “China’s development of ties with North Korea, its affection for the North Korean people and its support for the North’s socialism will not change regardless of international and regional affairs.”

“[Kim] probably wants to reconfirm Xi’s promise during the China-North Korea summit last May that he will guarantee the regime’s security and the country’s economic prosperity if Kim definitely moves forward with the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” said Cho Sung-ryul, senior research fellow for the Institute for National Security Strategy.

Kim may also intend to ask China to propose that the UN Security Council ease sanctions on North Korea at an appropriate time in the future, to cooperate on the imbalance in South and North Korea’s conventional armaments that will arise during the course of North Korea’s denuclearization, and to provide the North with economic aid. Kim could also urge Xi to accelerate the timeframe of a potential visit to the North.

China as leverage against US and UN sanctions

Kim will probably use these requests, if granted, as leverage to push the US toward easing sanctions on the North, guaranteeing the regime’s security and building a peace regime.

“By showing off the cooperative relationship between North Korea and China, Chairman Kim is signaling to the US that, if the US doesn’t guarantee the regime’s security or ease sanctions, China has its back,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.

Some observers also think that the meeting with Xi might give Kim a chance to flesh out the idea about multilateral negotiations aimed at the conversion to a peace regime that he brought up in his New Year’s address.

The critical factor is what action the Trump administration will take following Kim’s visit to China. Last year, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited North Korea following each of Kim’s visits to China. If Pompeo or an US government official of equivalent rank visits North Korea, it’s expected to be an important stop along the path toward the second North Korea-US summit.

By Kim Ji-eun and Park Min-hee, staff reporter, and Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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