On March 25-28, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un traveled with his wife Ri Sol-ju to Beijing to meet Chinese president Xi Jinping. This was Kim Jong-un’s first foreign visit as the head of state and his first visit to China since becoming North Korea’s supreme leader in December 2011. During the 4-day unofficial visit, Kim held bilateral talks with Xi, attended a welcoming banquet and luncheon hosted by Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan, watched an art performance, and visited an exhibition showcasing the accomplishments of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The meeting came as a surprise because relations between China and North Korea had been tense for months.
What this visit means:
- Shows a definitive turn in North Korea policy for Xi Jinping after the 13th National People’s Congress meeting earlier this month. It demonstrates Xi is moving away from an arm’s-length, non-dialogue policy to reconciliation with Kim Jong-un. This shift is likely motivated by (a) dissatisfaction with the ineffectiveness of their North Korea policy prior to Xi’s reinstatement as leader, and (b) the announcement from the South Koreans of a possible summit between Kim and U.S. president Donald Trump.
- At a minimum, this represents an effort at policy coordination in advance of the two spring summits, between North and South Korea and U.S.-North Korea (not unlike what the United States is now doing with its allies in Seoul and Tokyo). Xi doesn’t want to be left out of a possible North Korea-U.S. deal: he wants to make clear to Kim in advance what China will and will not support in the negotiations.
- At a maximum, China may resume some assistance to the North as it seeks Pyongyang’s assurance that it will not undertake any provocative actions that might upset the delicate diplomatic path being crafted after the PyeongChang Olympics. This would once again raise the problem of UNSCR sanctions compliance by Beijing.
- For Kim Jong-un this move may be an insurance policy to guarantee that even if summit talks fail with the U.S. that North Korea could still fall back on its relationship with China.
- As this trip represents Kim’s first known sojourn outside of the country to meet a foreign head of state, it suggests that the North Korean leader may not be averse to traveling outside of the country (perhaps even overseas) for a summit with the U.S. president.
- It may also represent efforts by Kim Jong-un to remake the image of his country into a “normal state.” This could be seen as an extension of Kim Yo-jong’s visit to South Korea for the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics and the welcoming of a South Korean delegation to Pyongyang earlier this month. The fact that Kim traveled with his wife Ri Sol-ju and other high-level officials such as Choe Ryong-hae is highly unusual and could indicate his desire to refine North Korea’s image on the world stage.
- Kim’s treatment by Xi as an equal raises his (Kim Jong-un’s) stature and furthers his strategy of using North Korea’s nuclear arsenal to elevate both himself and his country on the international stage. Kim likely hopes the upcoming meeting with Trump will further play into this narrative, allowing Kim to claim that his nuclear forces have won North Korea respect.
- From the North Korean perspective, the arrival of John Bolton as the new U.S. national security advisor could complicate prospects for successful negotiations, because it makes it less likely that Trump will make significant concessions to win North Korea’s promises to freeze or denuclearize. In turn, the North could fear that if talks fail, this heightens the risk of a U.S. military strike against North Korea. This could have been likely another subject of discussion for Xi and Kim.
- This first summit meeting between the two leaders came as a surprise in a historically barren period of North Korea-China high level exchanges. Data from CSIS Beyond Parallel of high-level North Korea-China visits shows that relations under Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un have been relatively sparse when compared with past periods, with only 7 high-level visits (including Kim’s trip this week) in the past six years, compared to 21 under Mao Zedong (with 6 trips to China by Kim Il-sung), and 54 under Hu Jintao (with 6 trips to China by Kim Jong-il and 1 by Hu to North Korea).