Chinese leader’s visit to North Korea also sends a message to Trump

Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meet June 20 in Pyongyang.
(CCTV via Associated Press)

Chinese President Xi Jinping sits at the heart of President Trump’s two biggest deal-making efforts — on the U.S.-China trade war and North Korea denuclearization — both of which are floundering. Xi’s arrival in Pyongyang on Thursday sent a message that he could play nice — or hardball — on both.

Xi’s two-day visit, the first by a Chinese leader to North Korea in 14 years, offers him the opportunity to extract some movement from North Korea’s Kim Jong Un on denuclearization that he could then offer as a sweetener to Trump at an expected meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Japan next week.

But it also shows that Xi is ready to form deeper alliances with natural allies like Russia and North Korea and to reach out to regional powers like India as a counterweight to U.S. power, should the world’s two biggest economies continue their dash towards a bruising geopolitical power struggle that some have likened to a new Cold War.

According to Chinese state television, Xi told Kim he sought deeper ties with North Korea and a peaceful political resolution to what he called “the Korean peninsula issue.” He praised Kim’s efforts to safeguard peace and stability and to promote denuclearization.

After a recent hardening of views in Washington and Beijing, Trump announced Tuesday that trade talks would resume.


China plays a key role in the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula because it is North Korea’s only close ally, and Washington needs Beijing to maintain pressure on Pyongyang in order to persuade Kim to make a deal. Xi has met Kim four times in the past year, but Thursday was his first visit to North Korea.

Xi was welcomed by massive crowds waving flowers and cheering. He held a meeting with Kim on Thursday afternoon, according to North Korean and Chinese state media.

A meeting in Osaka next week between Trump and Xi is seen as a last-ditch effort to curb the deepening trade war and avert threatened new U.S. tariffs on more than $300 billion in Chinese goods. If those went ahead, it would rattle China’s economy, disrupt global supply chains, hurt companies in both China and the U.S. and cost jobs on both sides.

The possibility of a major breakthrough between Trump and Xi is slim given the tight time frame, but American business groups in China hope that the meeting may break the increasing mutual hostility seen in recent weeks, paving the way for an eventual deal.

“We have already proven that we can hurt each other,” said Craig Allen, president of the U.S.-China Business Council, addressing reporters Thursday in Beijing. “The question of who can hurt each other more is a bit morbid.” He said the council hoped that Trump and Xi could keep the focus in on structural trade issues, adding he believed a deal was still attainable.

But he said it was important to separate broader tensions over national security and technological rivalry from trade talks on U.S. grievances over Chinese subsidies to firms, acquisition or theft of trade secrets and failure to open its economy to foreign firms in key sectors.

What began as a trade conflict last year has leaked into other areas, especially high-tech strategic competition, poisoning relations and complicating efforts to make a deal. The U.S. attack on Huawei — China’s high-tech poster child — infuriated Beijing. A U.S. ban last month on American firms supplying components to Huawei without government permission has sharpened tensions. Huawei and its executive Meng Wanzhou also face U.S. charges in two cases related to fraud and theft of trade secrets, respectively.

Chinese official media suggested that Xi may offer Kim economic and trade advantages in return for speeding up progress on denuclearization.

This would amount to a concession he could then present to Trump. In a front-page editorial in North Korea’s state-owned Rodong Sinmun newspaper on the eve of his visit, Xi spoke of opening a new chapter, deepening China’s friendship with North Korea.

Jin Qiangyi, head of international politics at Yanbian University in Jilin province, told the Communist Party-owned China Daily that Xi could offer deeper economic cooperation with North Korea, but because of U.N. sanctions, the only way Pyongyang could benefit was to make progress on the nuclear issue.

“The process to resolve the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea nuclear issue can achieve progress only if neighboring countries including China … can mediate between Pyongyang and Washington and bring them back to the negotiating table,” he said, using the formal name for North Korea. He said efforts by China, South Korea, Russia and Japan were key, with U.S.-North Korea talks having stalled.

Another analyst, Wang Sheng, international politics professor at Jilin University, told the paper that Xi and Kim could discuss how to deepen security cooperation, including denuclearization, trade and development.

“To work with other countries in such programs the DPRK has to expedite the denuclearization process,” Wang said.

Trump’s attempts to get a nuclear deal with North Korea began with threats in 2017 to bring “fire and fury” down and destroy the secretive nuclear state — to his declaration in September last year that he and Kim Jong Un “fell in love” during tough negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear missiles. That fell apart in February when the two leaders failed to reach a deal at a highly anticipated summit in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi.

Trump told journalists earlier this month he believed that Kim would like to make a deal and he would meet Kim “at the appropriate time,” after the issue seemed to have dropped off his agenda. But he said last week that he was in no rush to make a deal with Kim.

Kim has rejected Trump’s demand that North Korea give up all its nuclear weapons before any easing of sanctions. Despite tough U.N. sanctions, U.S. pressure and Trump’s wooing of Kim, North Korea’s position has barely shifted, wrote analyst Robert E. Kelly, in an article for the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank.

Kelly argued that one main reason the February summit failed was that Trump was poorly prepared and “was unable to debate details with Kim after Kim rejected Trump’s initial, all-or-nothing denuclearization offer.”

China’s Communist Party-run Global Times said Washington and Beijing shared “relatively consistent goals” in North Korea, adding that Xi’s visit showed that “China as a major responsible power is willing to deal with the concerns of all sides and better promote a peaceful solution to the Korean peninsula nuclear issue.”

Choo Jae-woo, a professor of Chinese studies at Seoul-based Kyung Hee University, said Xi probably wanted to use China’s influence on North Korea as a bargaining chip in trade talks with the U.S.

“He’ll want to use North Korea as an icebreaker to facilitate talks with the U.S.,” he said.

But Chung Jae-hung, a research fellow and China expert at the South Korean think tank Sejong Institute, said Xi’s visit lent support to Kim in the stalled nuclear talks with the U.S.

Chung said Xi was signaling China’s heft in the nuclear negotiations. “There appears to have been a strategic pivot — that China won’t just go along with U.S. sanctions but go its own path,” Chung said. “It’s a return to past warm relations with North Korea.”

Times Seoul Bureau Chief Victoria Kim contributed to this report.