By Phillip Orchard
It’s shaping up to be quite a spring for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Prior to this week, the mercurial strongman had yet to venture abroad since taking power in 2011, or even to meet with another foreign leader at home, content instead to focus on consolidating power and pushing the North’s nuclear and missile programs into overdrive. Over the next two months, however, he’s set to go toe-to-toe at the bargaining table with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, U.S. President Donald Trump and possibly even Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – despite having no real experience with face-to-face diplomacy. Thus, it shouldn’t have been all that surprising when reports surfaced March 26 that Kim had poked his head out from his bunker for a quick train ride to Beijing.
For days it was unclear whether Kim had actually gone to Beijing. We knew that an armored train regularly used by Kim Jong Un’s late father, Kim Jong Il, crossed the Yalu River amid heavy security on March 26 and arrived in Beijing to a warm but heavily guarded reception by the People’s Liberation Army honor guard. Video posted on social media then purportedly showed a long motorcade heading to a guesthouse where foreign leaders often stay while visiting Beijing. Credible reports (all citing anonymous sources) said the mysterious visitor was Kim Jong Un, but some South Korean outlets said the train was carrying only his sister, Kim Yo Jong, who reportedly has become part of her brother’s inner circle and who made a high-profile visit to Pyeongchang for the recent Olympics. Everyone else, including senior officials from South Korea, the United States and Japan quoted in various outlets, claimed to be in the dark. The train departed the Chinese capital on March 27. Finally, early March 28, China’s official Xinhua news agency confirmed that Kim Jong Un and Chinese President Xi Jinping had met for an “unofficial visit.”
The episode is high drama. But, ultimately, what matters is that the standoff on the Korean Peninsula may well be settled in the coming months, meaning North Korea can no longer afford to keep its estranged ally in Beijing confined to the caboose.
North Korea’s Other Adversary
Fears of a U.S. operation to oust the regime in Pyongyang have been a singular driver of North Korean strategy since the Korean War. This is the foremost reason Kim wants to develop the nuclear and long-range missile capabilities to threaten the United States. Doing so would give the U.S. extreme pause before moving against Pyongyang and give U.S. allies in Northeast Asia extreme doubt about whether the U.S. would be willing to risk a retaliatory strike on the homeland by coming to their defense against North Korean aggression.
But the U.S. isn’t the only thing keeping Kim up at night. China and North Korea may be allies, but under Kim’s watch, they haven’t been particularly chummy ones. This is because perhaps the most immediate threat to Kim is China’s latent ability to at least attempt to turn elites in Pyongyang against him in favor of a leader more amenable to Beijing’s interests. After all, when Kim succeeded his father as supreme leader, he was at most 28 years old (his actual birthdate is unknown) and had scant experience in the realm of power politics, making him vulnerable to usurpers – particularly ones with foreign backing. So, as he began consolidating power, one of his first targets was his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, whom Kim saw as too friendly with Beijing and thus a threat to his rule. Jang and much of his family were executed in 2013.
Fears of Chinese meddling also led Kim to take out his brother, Kim Jong Nam, who was killed by unwitting, VX-toting femme fatales at the Kuala Lumpur airport in 2017. Kim Jong Nam, who was living in exile in Macau and had survived an assassination attempt in 2012, was believed to be disinterested in politics. Nonetheless, he was under at least tacit Chinese protection, and he was part of the Kim dynasty bloodline. Therefore, the possibility remained that Beijing would try to install him as a puppet in Pyongyang. In fact, shortly after Kim Jong Nam’s demise, evidence emerged of a foiled assassination plot against Kim Jong Un being staged out of Chinese and Russian border regions. (The evidence points to South Korean intelligence, but Chinese involvement cannot be ruled out.)
Whatever the truth behind this cloak-and-dagger intrigue, Chinese-North Korean relations have evidently soured. Before this week’s events, Kim Jong Un is not believed to have met with a single senior Chinese official, much less his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, since taking power, and much of North Korea’s diplomatic presence in Beijing has been purged. Meanwhile, China has generally complied with the U.S.-led sanctions regime on North Korea, while regularly throwing its support behind Seoul’s stance on the Korean standoff. Over the past year, North Korean state media has become uncharacteristically critical of Beijing.
It is possible Pyongyang and Beijing have been cooperating tightly behind the scenes all along in an elaborate plot to expose cracks in the U.S. alliance structure and bring about the departure of U.S. forces from the Korean Peninsula. But there’s ample reason to suggest cross-border ties are indeed being strained by underlying realities. Chinese and North Korean interests have never been neatly aligned, but the loss of the Soviet Union as a patron in 1991 left Pyongyang feeling uncomfortably dependent on Beijing. And their interests have diverged further as Pyongyang has moved closer to nuclear statehood. Kim Jong Un probably wouldn’t consider Beijing such a threat otherwise. Beijing worries less about North Korea’s nuclear weapons than it does a war on the peninsula that would result in U.S. (or U.S.-allied) troops ending up on its border – or a war or chaotic regime collapse that would spawn a wave of refugees and spillover violence that would destabilize northeastern China. Nonetheless, it still does not want the North to continue its nuclear buildup, and it certainly doesn’t want the Korean Peninsula to reunify as a nuclear power. And if Beijing sees an opportunity to halt Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs, get the U.S. to back off, and bring North Korea comfortably back into its orbit by replacing Kim with a more compliant leader, it would have every interest in taking it.
This context explains why North Korea’s apparent outreach to China is such a big deal. And, combined with the North’s upcoming summits with Moon Jae-in and (potentially, at least) Donald Trump, it suggests the North Korean standoff is indeed entering a new phase.
It’s hard to say exactly what the North is hoping to get from Beijing, because we still don’t know how serious North Korea is about making any substantive concessions to the U.S. in an effort to find an offramp to the crisis. The North could merely be attempting to negotiate from a position of newfound strength, probing for opportunities for sanctions relief while basking in the legitimacy implicitly conferred on it by bringing a U.S. president to the table – long an elusive goal for the Kim dynasty – and buying time to complete its nuclear deterrent. It’s also possible some combination of sanctions pressure and fear of imminent war is forcing the North to look for a way out of the crisis. We just don’t know how far the North is from mastering the missile technology needed for a full deterrent against the U.S., nor whether sanctions pressure is crippling the North to the point that Kim fears a substantive backlash in Pyongyang, nor to what degree the U.S. would be willing to sacrifice South Korean security by going to war in the North. But these are the core variables that will determine how the crisis plays out from here.
In any scenario, North Korea can afford to keep China at arm’s length only for so long. If the North is ready to scale down its nuclear program, it will demand some kind of security guarantee in exchange, presumably with China playing an instrumental role. If the North is merely looking for sanctions relief, weakening Chinese enforcement is the place to start. If the North has no intention of making substantive concessions in Kim’s meeting with Trump, war becomes all the more likely – again forcing Pyongyang to lean more heavily on the Chinese to try to forestall the Americans.
At minimum, tighter coordination with Beijing will strengthen Pyongyang’s negotiating position, whatever its aims at the bargaining table. In fact, there’s some precedent for the timing of this visit. Kim Jong Il likewise refrained from visiting Beijing for six years after the death of his own father, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, before venturing abroad for the first time in 2000, just months before a landmark inter-Korean summit that paved the way for an ill-fated nuclear deal. (He then visited China another seven times before his death in 2011.)
China cannot be the decisive player in the Korean standoff without violating its own core imperatives. But it also cannot be fully sidelined from any outcome. One way or another, the crisis is nearing an inflection point, meaning it’s time for Beijing and Pyongyang to come in from the cold.