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With latest China visit, North Korea's Kim can again play statesman and reassure Beijing he's an ally

With latest China visit, North Korea's Kim can again play statesman and reassure Beijing he's an ally
In this image taken from video footage run by China's CCTV on Tuesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, walks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (Associated Press)

Decades ago, former Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung described his country’s relationship with North Korea as one of “lips and teeth” — a loosely defined metaphor from an imperial era Mao used to define a close, yet different, relationship.

It perhaps remains an apt description of their relationship now.

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s visit Tuesday with Chinese President Xi Jinping was his third in as many months and highlights that the countries remain tightly allied, albeit for different reasons, analysts said.

“They have mutual influence over each other,” said Stephen R. Nagy, a distinguished fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. “That’s really quite a substantial part of the puzzle.”

Chinese and North Korean officials did not announce the agenda for Kim’s two-day visit to Beijing, but analysts say it surely will focus on Pyongyang’s recent overtures to Washington and Seoul. North Korea, as it seeks warmer relations with the United States and South Korea, needs China’s cooperation to improve its tiny economy. Beijing, an economic powerhouse, has been frustrated with North Korea’s nuclear development and lack of coordination on foreign affairs in recent years.

China wants to make sure North Korea doesn’t drift too far from its historical ties — and Pyongyang seems determined to send a positive message to Beijing, a critical partner.

“The North Korean leader understands that China is concerned, therefore he paid special attention to reassure China,” said Tong Zhao, a fellow with the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing.

The meeting of Kim and Xi, which played out amid unusually open publicity from China’s state-controlled media, occurred months after a surprising burst of diplomacy sparked by the North’s participation in the Winter Olympics in democratic South Korea. The North and the South, which have deep cultural and ethnic roots, remain separated and technically at war after more than six decades.

The official New China News Agency, referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, reported that Xi and Kim “agreed to safeguard, consolidate and develop China-DPRK relations, and jointly push forward the sound momentum of peace and stability of the Korean peninsula to make a positive contribution to safeguarding world and regional peace, stability, prosperity and development.”

Kim’s latest Beijing trip followed two summits in recent months with South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, in which the leaders made historic overtures to the other side and signed an agreement offering the hope of peace and denuclearization.

It also comes after the June 12 meeting with President Trump in Singapore, which may already have benefited China because Kim made no binding commitments on denuclearization, while Trump said he would suspend military exercises with South Korea. The Pentagon and South Korean officials on Monday formally announced the suspension of some exercises.

This week’s trip by Kim was also another jarring example of the North Korean leader’s recent travels abroad and meetings with world leaders — situations that seemed impossible amid rising tensions with the West last year.

Kim had not left his country since taking power in 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il. He took an armored train to China in late March for his first face-to-face meeting with Xi. That was widely regarded as a rapprochement between the two leaders and was followed by another meeting in May in the Chinese port city of Dalian as Xi made clear that he intended to assert Beijing’s influence ahead of the summit with Trump in Singapore.

“They built a relationship in the first two meetings,” said Cheng Xiaohe, an international studies professor and North Korea expert at People’s University of China. This time around, Cheng said, he expected the two leaders to discuss specifics on future negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington and other issues critical to the North’s goals.

Kim probably will be seeking Xi’s support to help North Korea’s already underdeveloped economy, which has been further hurt by sanctions over its repeated nuclear and ballistic missile tests in violation of United Nations resolutions.

“There is also an awful lot for the two leaders to discuss when it comes to economic cooperation,” said Adam Cathcart, a lecturer of Chinese history at the University of Leeds. “The Chinese Communist Party has both near-term connectivity and a long-term ability to help move the North Korean economy forward.”

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For China’s part, Xi may suggest strategies and a timeline for how a denuclearization process might someday take place. The two leaders also might discuss how to reduce the U.S. military presence in South Korea, where it has more than 28,000 troops and weapons systems designed to counter the North’s threats, Cheng and other analysts said.

Kim arrived in Beijing amid intensifying trade tensions that have strained U.S.-China relations and could affect how the difficult U.S.-North Korea talks on denuclearization play out in the coming months.

This week’s visit also gives Kim another chance to portray himself as a more typical and respected world leader who is willing to negotiate, a fact that reduces the threat of military intervention by the United States if denuclearization talks stall.

The invite from Xi — and the surrounding publicity — also “enhances Kim’s ability to show that he’s involved in diplomacy and promoting diplomacy and interested in engagement,” Nagy said. “This gives them a bargaining chip with the United States.”

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