Kim's China trip shows Beijing still holds many keys to North Korea

Kim's China trip shows Beijing still holds many keys to North Korea
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What does the stealth train ride by the North Korean leader to China portend for the United States and its denuclearization meeting in May with the Pyongyang regime? The short answer is a lot and not a lot. This cryptic answer requires a little background before it is addressed.

The North Korean leader’s surreptitious visit to China has rightly drawn much international attention. In his first foreign trip beyond the borders of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) since succeeding his father in late 2011, Kim Jong Un went to visit with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the last week of March.


Kim traveled by a green train similar to that used by his father and grandfather when they ventured to the Chinese capital. The Kim family has a fear of flying but not the regular flight phobia shared by countless others. Rather, they have realized that planes are more vulnerable to regicide mischief than ground transportation. 


Regardless of the transportation mode, Kim’s trip to meet with Xi is significant for the United States. Prior to his historic journey north, Kim worried world leaders. His tenure up until February’s Winter Olympic Games was marked by provocation after provocation, particularly aimed at the United States, which serves as general guarantor of East Asian peace and defender of South Korea’s security, dating back to the Korean War (1950-53).

That fighting ended not with a treaty but merely an armistice with the DPRK. Since that war, the Korean Peninsula has never been far from a renewed large-scale conflict. Tensions, however, are not just limited to the differences between the two Koreas or their governing systems of capitalism and communism.

For decades, the Kim dynasty has concentrated on amassing longer-range ballistic missiles and atomic weapons to strike fear into the hearts of South Koreans, as well as those in broader East Asia and the United States. The passing years have witnessed growing breakthroughs and mastery in the testing of projectiles and nuclear warheads by the inscrutable Kim regime.

Its long-distance ballistic missile can now strike the continental United States. Pyongyang’s mounting nuclear and rocket capacity has increasingly preoccupied American attention from the Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonJimmy and Rosalynn Carter encourage people to take COVID-19 vaccine Harris taps women of color for key senior staff positions Obama, Bush and Clinton say they'll get vaccine publicly to prove safety MORE administration to the Donald Trump government.

Accompanying the relentless march of atomic test-firing, the young Kim stepped up the regime’s verbal threats toward the United States; a parlance returned in kind by President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says GOP senators have called to congratulate him Biden: Trump attending inauguration is 'of consequence' to the country Biden says family will avoid business conflicts MORE, who rattled the U.S. nuclear sabre at Pyongyang.

President’s Trump’s response included escalating American and United Nations economic sanctions on Chinese and North Korean business entities and individuals to achieve what he termed as “maximum pressure” on North Korea to compel it to negotiation and denuclearization.  

Then, Kim adopted conciliation at the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea in which North Korean athletes took part. He sent his sister, Kim Yo Jong, as a smiling DPRK representative to charm South Korea and the United States.

Next, the enigmatic chairman invited a South Korean delegation to Pyongyang for talks, at which he demonstrated a less sinister side of his personality. Upon conclusion of the discussions, the South Korean officials traveled to Washington delivering an invitation to Trump to meet with Kim.

Without hesitation, Trump accepted and agreed to meet somewhere (the place is not yet determined) in May. Then, pulling another rabbit from his hat, Kim journeyed to Beijing for consultations with China, a state that has sometimes been estranged from North Korea for defying Beijing’s calls for a halt to its nuclear and missile tests.

All of this background returns us to the question of what do all these charm offenses, volte-faces and diplomatic pirouettes mean for the Trump administration? The French saying, "plus ça change, the plus c’est la même chose (the more things change the more they stay the same)" is appropriate here.

The North Koreans, no matter how charmingly they present themselves, will not part with their nuclear arms or missile capabilities. They are central to the North Korean identity as a pretentious major world power. Without them, they are a third-rate, impoverished nation without true allies.

China and Russia regard North Korea as a useful pawn to antagonize and disconcert the United States and the West. The DPRK’s antics keep Washington off balance, keep it from dominating East Asia and keep it from ruling out the centrality of China and Russia from diplomacy in the region. Kim’s Beijing trip changed none of these facts.

If anything, the North Korean leader’s hat-in-hand appeal to Xi restored the status quo ante. Kim often spurned China’s calls for restraint in nuclear and missile firings. China prefers a low boil, not a hot crisis, from its sometimes wayward protégé.

It has made no secret of its desire that the DPRK follow its gradual path of a state-directed economic development. The young leader in Pyongyang often dismissed China’s tutelage, which angered Beijing.

Now, with talks looming with Trump in two months, a chastened Kim needed China back in his corner in the manner it had been during the elder Kim’s rule.

The big development stemming from the Kim trip revolves around China’s return as the key player in the upcoming talks. Rogue states like North Korea rely on major power patronage. The same phenomenon applies to Syria’s need for Russian backing to survive.

Isolated and relatively weak rogue nations seek some alignment under the umbrella of a more powerful patron for survival. A cynic might read the events of the last few months as an orchestrated game plan by Kim to bring China back into his camp.

The Beijing visit changes Washington’s calculus. It is no long just the DPRK, United States and possibly South Korea seated at the May talks. China will be there, too, if not physically than in a haunting spirit. Like Banquo’s ghost, China will not be entirely welcome, either.

It complicates negotiations at a minimum, for another power’s interests must be considered more keenly in the negotiations. More importantly, China, no doubt, has North Korea’s back. It’s willingness to enforce international sanctions on its difficult dependency crucially makes or breaks their effectiveness.

Kim’s visit almost certainly means China will not scuttle his regime as it toes the Beijing line. For the Trump foreign policy team, it faces a mission impossible to achieve North Korean disarmament.  

Thomas Henriksen is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is also author of "America and the Rogue States."