North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wants to talk to President Donald Trump about “phased and synchronous measures” to deal with their nuclear standoff, Chinese state media reported Tuesday after Kim made his second visit to China in as many months.
This wording, coupled with Kim’s desire to “eventually achieve denuclearization and lasting peace on the peninsula,” will ring alarm bells in Washington as it reinforces suspicions that the North Korean leader will ask Trump to take simultaneous steps to reduce tensions.
Kim is expected to meet Trump some time in the next month for what would be the first meeting between a sitting American president and a North Korean leader.
There is a considerable amount of skepticism among analysts that Kim, having tried so hard to get a credible nuclear weapons program, is about to give it all up – certainly not without extracting major concessions from the United States. That could include lessening the American military footprint in South Korea.
Kim made the remarks during a two-day visit to the Chinese port city of Dalian, not far from the North Korean border, where he met with President Xi Jinping, Xinhua reported Tuesday night. His younger sister and close aide, Kim Yo Jong, could be seen at the meetings with him.
“Xi held talks with Kim and hosted a welcome banquet for him. Together, they also took a stroll and attended a luncheon,” the state news agency reported, noting that the meeting took place in a “cordial and friendly atmosphere.”
During their talks, Xi noted that Kim has recently made active efforts to promote dialogue and that current diplomatic efforts were “conducive to a political solution,” Xinhua reported.
Xi was reportedly in the northeastern city to attend a ceremony marking the test launch of China’s first entirely domestically-produced aircraft carrier.
Shortly afterward, North Korea’s most authoritative news anchor, Ri Chun Hee, took to the country’s airwaves to announce the visit. Her appearance – she delivers only the most important news – underscores the emphasis that the Kim regime is putting on the current efforts at detente.
The news of another visit, complete with photos of Kim and Xi walking in the sunshine and looking relaxed on an outdoor deck, highlights the Chinese desire to be right in the middle of the current burst of diplomacy surrounding North Korea.
For his part, Kim could be trying to improve ties with Xi – which have been frosty, to put it mildly – in case his outreach to Trump falls flat, analysts say.
Trump tweeted Tuesday morning Washington time that he would soon be talking to his “friend” Xi. “The primary topics will be Trade, where good things will happen, and North Korea, where relationships and trust are building,” he tweeted.
As with his train trip to Beijing in March, speculation had been rife ahead of the announcement that Kim had traveled to Dalian, not far from the border between China and North Korea after citizens reported tightened security and traffic controls. Then Kim’s personal jet and another plane belonging to North Korea’s state airline were spotted at an airport near the city.
This latest visit is part of a remarkable series of events over the past few months.
On Jan. 1, Kim was threatening to send nuclear-tipped missiles to the United States and Trump was warning of military options for dealing with the North Korean leader.
Then, precipitated by talks held during the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February, North Korea has started responding to the outside world.
Kim traveled to Beijing in March, his first journey outside the country since becoming leader at the end of 2011, for a red-carpet visit accompanied by his wife and top members of his regime.
Then, late last month, Kim crossed the Demilitarized Zone into South Korea to meet President Moon Jae-in for a summit during which they signed a statement agreeing to the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula.
That is considered a warm-up act for a meeting with Trump, likely to be held later this month or in early June. Trump said Friday the date and location will be announced soon.
The second meeting with Xi and the lack of details on the Trump-Kim summit have raised speculation among analysts that the summit preparations may have hit a snag.
South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha tried to dismiss the concerns, saying it was “diplomatically unthinkable” to delay the summit given both leaders’ “strong” will to hold it.
“From a broad perspective, I think it would not be a big problem that the summit [plan] is announced one or two days late,” Kang, who attended the inter-Korean summit, said in an interview with local broadcaster KBS. “This meeting is one that carries the will of President Trump and State Affairs Commission Chairman Kim Jong Un,” she said, using one of Kim’s formal titles.
Trump has said that Kim’s sudden interest in talking is the direct result of the United States’ “maximum pressure” policy on the North Korean regime.
Many analysts agree that this as least part of the reason for Kim’s sudden about-face. But they say it is also because the 34-year-old North Korean leader, having achieved his goal of developing a credible nuclear weapons program, is now turning his attention to the economy.
Kim announced a “simultaneous push” policy in 2013 of developing the nuclear program and the economy at the same time. Last year he demonstrated he had missiles that could technically reach the entire United States mainland and that he had a huge nuclear bomb.
But the international sanctions imposed as punishment for those efforts are severely hurting the North Korean economy, in no small part because China has been aggressively enforcing them.
Beijing has long prioritized North Korean regime stability over nuclear punishments, but the specter of American military strikes appears to have convinced Xi that possible instability was preferable to war on its border.
News of a second meeting between the two leaders so soon after the first one surprised analysts.
Yanmei Xie, a senior China policy analyst at Gavekal Dragonomics in Beijing, noted that Xinhua reported Kim came to China to “brief” Xi on what it called the rapid development of the regional situation.
“This is Kim demonstrating to Xi and the rest of the world that despite warming relations with the South and prospect for mending ties with Washington, China-North Korea relations take precedence over all else,” she said.
Lu Chao, a Korea specialist at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences in Shenyang, not far from Dalian, said this latest meeting disproved contentions that China was not playing a central role in diplomatic developments related to North Korea.
“It’s impossible to exclude China from things happening on the Korean Peninsula,” he said. “It’s been a consensus among U.S. presidents that without China, it’s very tough to solve the Korean Peninsula issue.”
Others said it could be a sign of real discussions about denuclearization.
“If Kim Jong Un is in China again, there might be some real substantive negotiations going on,” said Zhao Tong, a nuclear policy expert at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing. “Maybe North Korea and the U.S. are thinking about making some radical concessions.”
South Korea has repeatedly said that the North is willing to discuss its nuclear program in talks with the United States, although “denuclearization” has not been defined. The language in the April 27 agreement has many American analysts worried that Kim will insist on U.S. military drawdowns from South Korea as part of any deal.
Although there is considerable skepticism in the United States and Japan about whether North Korea is genuine, analysts point out that Kim appears to want to move on from nuclear to economic development.
“I do think North Korea would have a very strong interest to pivot to economic development,” Zhao said. “In this regard it would have a strong motivation to build much stronger economic ties with China, South Korea and Russia.”
The South Korean government is exploring ways to increase economic cooperation with North Korea without breaching international sanctions or earning the ire of Trump. Reports from the Chinese-North Korean border suggest that Chinese authorities have already lost much of their enthusiasm for enforcing existing sanctions.
But Xie of Gavekal Dragonomics said that, deep down, Kim knows Washington and Seoul are unlikely to lift sanctions anytime soon and that he has to rely on China to provide economic relief.
“By receiving Kim twice in such a short span of time and flaunting the bilateral ‘traditional friendship,’ Beijing is demonstrating that the two countries’ positions are now fully aligned and discord is a thing of the past,” she said.
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Anna Fifield, Simon Denyer