On 7–10 January, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visited China, where he met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Kim’s fourth visit to this country in ten months is meant to strengthen North Korea’s position in talks with the U.S. and in the inter-Korean dialogue. The visit also confirmed that solving the problems on the Korean Peninsula is not possible without China’s involvement.
A week before the visit, in his New Year’s address, Kim announced the continuation of diplomatic activity. He expressed interest in the further improvement of inter-Korean relations, another meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, and in maintaining the best possible relations with China. He underlined his desire to initiate multilateral talks to replace the ceasefire after the Korean War with a “peace mechanism.” In parallel with Kim’s visit, in Beijing talks were held between the U.S. and China on their trade disputes. The preparations for a second Kim-Trump summit have recently gained momentum. U.S. and North Korean diplomats discussed the details of the meeting in Hanoi.
The fourth visit of Kim to China was to confirm that it is not possible to achieve the peaceful denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula without China’s support and involvement. In deciding to invite Kim, Xi also demonstrated that solving the North Korean problem requires U.S.-China cooperation. Thus, Kim’s visit can be read as a signal that the accumulation of problems in U.S.-China relations (e.g., in trade) may hinder solutions to the problems on the peninsula. The visit can be seen as China’s attempt to exert pressure on the U.S. to respond to the North’s conciliatory attitude towards denuclearisation. The Chinese announcement after the summit also demonstrated that China wants to be seen as a potential model for the North to follow if it makes economic changes.
Kim’s visit to China served to strengthen the North’s negotiating position ahead of a possible second meeting between Kim and Trump. The mounting tensions between China and the U.S. are beneficial for North Korea because it allows it to play off the conflict between the global powers. For Kim, it is important that China, together with Russia, indicate that the U.S. should ease sanctions on North Korea in response to calming the situation on the peninsula given the North’s conciliatory moves towards denuclearisation. The visit to China can be seen as the fulfilment of Kim’s New Year’s speech claims that if the U.S. maintains its policy of pressure and sanctions, the North may be forced to take a “new path.” It is possible that this “path” is further rapprochement with China. It is probable that during the meeting with Xi, Kim solicited China to be less restrictive in its enforcement of the sanctions imposed on North Korea.
Kim’s visit to China likely facilitates talks between the two Koreas and between the North and the U.S. At a press conference on 10 January, President Moon Jae-in expressed his belief that Kim and Trump would meet soon and soon after, the North’s leader would visit South Korea. Kim’s visit to China may indicate that preparations for a North Korea–U.S. summit are advanced. Last year, after the North’s leader’s visits to China, the inter-Korean summit and Kim–Trump summit took place.