North Korean leader Kim Jong-un paid a surprise visit to China this week, where he made a commitment to the denuclearization of the peninsula and said he looked forward to his upcoming meeting with President Trump.
The meeting was his first trip out of state since he took power in 2011 and was his very first meeting with the leader of another country. Kim arrived in China Sunday, unannounced, onboard an armored train. Media coverage of the event was positive, with Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua confirming Kim had made a commitment to denuclearize the peninsula:
“If South Korea and the United States respond with good will to our efforts and create an atmosphere of peace and stability, and take phased, synchronized measures to achieve peace, the issue of the denuclearization of the peninsula can reach resolution,” said Kim.
North Korea’s state-run news agency, KCNA, made no mention of Kim’s future meeting with Trump or his promise on denuclearization.
As retired Army Colonel David Maxwell points out, the term “denuclearization” has big implications for the US and South Korea. “When the regime talks denuclearization, they require the South Korea-US alliance to be ended, US troops removed from the peninsula, and an end to extended deterrence and the nuclear umbrella. Once that condition is met, then the North will begin the process of denuclearization.”
Despite Kim’s assurances, analysts believe it unlikely Kim will actually give up his nukes. “He is starting a new game where he could make concessions on denuclearization. At most, he will cut the grass, but he will not pull out the roots,” says Yang Xiyu, a Chinese expert on North Korea.
Kim has plans to hold a summit with President Trump in May, and his renewed bond with China will significantly increases his leverage in negotiations.
“It means the Trump team is going to be navigating really narrow straits here. It’s hard to overstate how dramatic this development is,” says Adam Mount, an expert on US nuclear strategy.
China is North Korea’s closest ally and biggest trade partner, but relations between the two countries had been strained following China’s support for sanctions against North Korea for its missile tests. That estrangement was “really our greatest asset with respect to North Korea,” continues Mount. “It’s clear both Pyongyang and Beijing won’t be dictated to by Seoul and Washington, but also develop their own agenda. We should be aware that it might be a coordinated agenda.”
Kim’s meeting with Xi could also be an attempt to divide the international community, in particular the five countries that have participated in talks involving North Korea: Japan, China, South Korea, the United States, and Russia.
Others, including national security adviser John Bolton, suspect Kim’s willingness to negotiate is just a way of stalling until his nuclear program is up and running.
Trump confirmed on Wednesday that “maximum sanctions and pressure” would remain in effect.