Kim Jong Un's visit to China preludes second Trump-Kim summit, China's role crucial

SEOUL/WASHINGTON – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s latest visit to China is a prelude to his likely second summit with US President Donald Trump with Beijing playing a pivotal role in nudging Pyongyang towards denuclearisation, say experts.

Mr Kim met Chinese President Xi Jinping before his encounters with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in April and Mr Trump in June in Singapore.

“If the pattern of Chairman Kim reinforcing strategic communication with Xi Jinping first remains the same, it is highly likely that he will visit Seoul or hold the second US-North Korea summit in early or mid-February,” said Sejong Institute analyst Cheong Seong-chang.

Mr Kim arrived in Beijing on Tuesday and the Foreign Ministry in Beijing said he would be meeting with Chinese leaders to discuss “relevant issues” but did not reveal more about his itinerary.

The visit comes amid intense speculation that a second summit with Mr Trump is in the works, after months of stalled talks between the two sides on the nuclear issue. The US leader himself said on Sunday that negotiations were underway for a location and that the outcome would be announced “in the not-too-distant future”.

The White House scouting team has already visited Bangkok, Hanoi and Hawaii in search of a potential site, CNN reported on Tuesday (Jan 8) citing a source familiar with the planning process.

Observers said it benefits both sides to keep the dialogue going, with neither gaining anything from the continuing impasse.

Talks have stalled over the US insistence that North Korea take concrete steps towards denuclearisation, such as submitting a list of the nuclear weapons in its arsenal, while Pyongyang is pushing for “corresponding measures” like sanctions relief.

“Having a second summit supports a narrative that President Trump considers critical to his legitimacy as a businessman and politician: that he is a great dealmaker, and that we’ve seen success with North Korea because of his personal diplomacy,” Mr Mintaro Oba, a former State Department official who has worked on North Korea, told The Straits Times.

“Continuing summit diplomacy with North Korea is central to that.”

Sustaining dialogue can also elevate Mr Kim’s stature as a leader and “maximise his diplomatic options, likely without making many substantive concessions – if any at all”, said Mr Oba.

But, as much as both leaders want to continue talking and smiling for the cameras, some analysts warn that a second summit may not happen unless North Korea is prepared to accede to US demands.

Pyongyang has been piling pressure on both Washington and Seoul, demanding reciprocal moves from the US for all that it has done so far which includes halting missile tests and dismantling its key nuclear test site in Punggye-ri.

But the US maintains that sanctions and pressure on North Korea will remain until complete denuclearisation.

While the first Trump-Kim meeting was more optics than substance, the second one must “show materialised progress” as the hope of the US President for re-election in 2020 depends on it, said Dr Shin Chang-hoon, senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for Maritime Strategy.

Mr Trump will not want to “take all the responsibility or risk if there’s no progress”, he told ST.

Unfortunately, there are no signals yet that either side will back down.

Unless either or both countries take a more flexible and creative approach, the results of a second summit will be “largely cosmetic and serve mainly to preserve momentum behind the current diplomatic process”, said Mr Oba. “It will be the current status quo, but with more smiles.”

Dr Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the East West Centre in Honolulu , was also pessimistic about a positive outcome from a second Trump-Kim summit.

He said: “The most likely result of a second summit would be each government again claiming a victorious breakthrough, with little if any substantive change in the factors that created the crisis except Trump dropping the threat to take preventive military action against North Korea.”

Mr Kim’s visit to China – North Korea’s only ally and economic lifeline – could be the key to unlocking the nuclear deadlock.

Signs have already emerged that a stronger alliance with China could be the “new path” that Mr Kim hinted at taking in his New Year’s Day address.

The three Xi-Kim summits last year have made Mr Kim “very optimistic” that China “would be willing to provide protection and economic support while abstaining from too massive direct interference” so as to force the US out of Korea and East Asia, Professor Ruediger Frank of the University of Vienna wrote in a commentary on North-watching website 38 North.

As such, he said, Mr Kim’s “new path” may be less of a hint at a return to nuclear tests, but more of a message to Donald Trump: “You are not our only option for security and economic development. If you refuse to be cooperative, we will ignore you and turn to China. Oh, and we will take South Korea along”.

Some reports also suggested that Mr Kim may attempt to seek sanctions relief from China. But Mr Xi, under pressure from the US, might not oblige.

Dr Lee Seong-hyon, director of Sejong Institute’s Centre for Chinese Studies, said that Mr Kim’s visit to Beijing is unfolding amid a “complexity of strategic calculus intertwined” with US-China ties worsening over trade and China-North Korea ties improving dramatically in the past year.

If China wants to placate the US, it might “utilise the occasion to nudge Kim to be more forthcoming in denuclearisation steps as a diplomatic favour to Washington”, he told ST.

This could be seen as China’s goodwill gesture in working with the US on North Korea’s nuclear issue, he added.

However, there is also a chance that Mr Kim is using China as “diplomatic insurance against the US”, said Dr Lee.

“Trump, Xi, Kim – they are all dealmakers. We’ll see who is the shrewdest one among them.”

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