Hope for peace as Kim meets Xi Jinping
This was Kim Jong-un’s first known trip to a foreign country since he took power in 2011, and the first meeting between a North Korean leader and a Chinese President since 2011, writes Rajaram Panda
In a sudden twist in regional diplomacy posturing in the Korean Peninsula, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un paid an unexpectedly surprise visit to China from March 25 to 28 for a talk with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the people in Beijing. In sharp contrast to last year’s nuclear tests and a series of missile launches by North Korea that heightened tensions to dangerous levels, the year 2018 has seen tensions considerably lessened. This process started with Kim Jong-un’s peace overtures in his New Year address. This was followed by the participation of North Korean athletes at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics hosted by South Korea in February. The announcement of Moon Jae-in-Kim Jong-un summit meeting in April and then a Donald Trump-Kim summit meeting in May add further twist to the Korean imbroglio. These unprecedented developments now reached another level with the sudden visit of Kim to Beijing to have a meeting with Xi.
After maintaining initial secrecy, it was announced that Kim did visit Beijing and met with Xi. This was Kim’s first known trip to a foreign country since he took power in 2011, and the first meeting between a North Korean leader and a Chinese President since 2011. The two leaders reportedly discussed the ongoing inter-Korean rapprochement, with Kim telling Xi that the situation on the peninsula had improved since the beginning of the year. According to Xinhua News Agency, Kim remarked: “It is our consistent stand to be committed to denuclearization on the peninsula, in accordance with the will of late President Kim Il Sung and late General Secretary Kim Jong Il”. He further added: “The issue of denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved, if South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace”. XI expressed his gratitude to Kim for making the visit.
Kim was accompanied on the visit by his wife, Ri Sol Ju. The two were hosted at a banquet and “watched an art performance together”. The others who accompanied Kim to Beijing were ChoeRyongHae, vice-chairman of the WPK Central Committee and director of the Organisation and Guidance Department and Pak KwangHo, vice-chairman of the WPK Central Committee and director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department. Also featured were Ri Su Yong, vice-chairman of the WPK Central Committee and director of the International Department, Kim Yong Chol, vice-chairman of the WPK Central Committee, and North Korea’s foreign minister Ri Yong Ho. While Kim Yong Chol had attended the closing ceremony of the PyeongChang Winter Games, Ri Yong Ho travelled to Sweden amid speculation of consultation ahead of the summit meeting with Trump. Notable in the delegation was the absence of Kim’s sister Kim Jo Yong, widely speculated to have been part of the high-profile visit.
Earlier, President Trump had expressed unhappiness that Beijing was not doing enough to put pressure on Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear path. Notwithstanding the whirlwind of diplomatic developments in past months, with Kim’s Beijing visit, it transpires that Beijing’s relevance to address North Korea’s nuclear program cannot be overlooked. Despite the recent antipathy between Beijing and Pyongyang following the latter’s defiance to former’s counsel not to raise tensions by missile launches and other provocative acts, Kim just cannot ignore the fact that Beijing continues to remain the lifeline for the North by providing aid, trade even if those meant in clandestine manner, besides offering diplomatic support, all of which help keep North’s broken economy afloat. Having committed to meet Trump in May in the first ever such a summit with a US President, it was reasonable for Kim to apprise the Chinese leadership in person what he has in mind and what his long-term intentions are.
There is an argument that Beijing felt miffed when it was not consulted by Kim before he agreed to reach out to Seoul and Washington in his unilateral way to shake up regional politics. It is not known if Beijing felt reduced to a bystander but it is possible to believe that Beijing may have felt offended. Kim’s decision to travel to Beijing could have been to remove such misgivings. It is also possible to think that Kim was preparing to keep other options safe if the summits ended in failure.
There is yet another interpretation. This view suggests that both Kim and Xi had planned to meet much in advance before Kim agreed for summit meetings with Moon and Trump. Those who take this view say that both Xi and Kim have already consolidated their powers and therefore both felt it was time to shift focus to external stability. While Kim is firmly in control in the North, Xi not only got a second term but the term limit being removed, also enjoys the freedom to rule as long as he wants. This situation provided the right opportunity to both to look beyond their respective borders. Even in Russia, Putin is firmly in control with possibility to remain in power for many more years and therefore it would not be surprising if Kim tried to reach out to Putin too soon. In the event of such a scenario unfolding, Japan is the only country that would be isolated, putting new challenge to Shinzo Abe.
Having agreed to meet Moon and Trump in two summits in succession, Kim seemed to want securing Beijing’s support so that he can speak with both from a position of strength. Even if the summits end with no tangible outcome, Kim would still feel the winner as China continues to remain the main ally of the North. North Korea’s provocative acts by weapons tests and missile launches in 2017 had resulted in heavy sanctions, rippling North’s economy and therefore Kim had to find a way out. And the way was chosen to reach out to South Korea and the US so that the sanctions blow could possibly be softened or at least Kim could bargain at the summit meetings. Kim’s outreach is being interpreted as the North is desperate to break out of isolation and improve its economy after being squeezed by heavy sanctions.
Kim’s worry was further confounded as Beijing was miffed with its continuous defiance and Beijing willy-nilly had no choice than to join others in imposing the UN-mandated sanctions. Kim’s sudden journey to Beijing to speak with Xi personally could have been from this consideration.
Irrespective of Kim’s tantrums that annoyed Beijing for a while, Beijing’s strategic relevance in the Korean diplomacy cannot be diminished a bit. The North Korea-China alliance is decades-old forged during the 1950-53 Korean War. When Beijing felt frustrated, it had no choice than to join others to impose UN sanctions, including restrictions on oil supply. Kim probably felt that annoying Beijing further would not be in its interest and therefore preferred to seek a diplomatic breakthrough. From Beijing’s perspective, it would be unwilling to concede diplomatic victory to the US and would like to be seen as a larger player so far as regional diplomacy is concerned. No wonder, Kim was welcomed in Beijing for a briefing before he meets Trump.
Beijing has its own strategic considerations, which is equally compelling. Though a nuclear power itself, Beijing would not feel comfortable to have an emerging nuclear menace at it doorstep. Despite sanctions, Beijing would also not rejoice with the prospect of the regime in North Korea collapsing as that scenario would do away a buffer state against US ally South Korea. For Beijing, stability in the Korean Peninsula serves its national interests well, which is why it initiated the Six-Party Talks involving itself, the US, South Korea, Japan and Russia. The initiative collapsed after the North walked out but for Beijing the importance of dialogue has remained always relevant. It was for this reason, Beijing argued for suspension-for-suspension approach, according to which North Korea shall suspend nuclear tests and missile launches and US and South Korea shall agree to suspend the annual military drills, which Pyongyang perceive as preparation for invasion.
Kim’s decision to visit Beijing does not however mean that its nuclear weapons and missile activities remain suspended if the summit talks fall apart. Kim Jong-un has never promised to do that. But hereafter he would find himself on a stronger wicket. Should the summits end without any tangible outcome, Kim can find himself on a stronger position in seeking Beijing’s support, besides its approval to resume weapon tests and softening of sanctions.
Xi believed to have made four proposals to Kim: importance of “high-level exchanges” between the two countries, continuing “strategic communications”, advancing “peaceful development”, and “cement the popular will” on Beijing-Pyongyang relations. Xi is believed to have praised Kim’s work on developing his country’s economy. North Korea, however, did not make any public comment on the purported agreement reached between the two leaders.
Kim’s meeting with Xi was the first with a foreign head of state. His father, late Kim Jong Il, visited China several times during his rule, last in May 2011, months before his death in December. Past visits by Kim Jong II to China were usually surrounded in secrecy. Beijing used to confirm his presence only after he crossed the border by train back to North Korea.
Kim was described by Xinhua as saying that North Korea wants to transform ties with South Korea into “a relationship of reconciliation and cooperation”. Both Koreas are still technically at war because their 1950-53 war ended in an armistice and not with a peace treaty. North Korea’s state Korean Central News Agency published Kim’s personal letter to Xi expressing gratitude for showing “heart-warming hospitality” during his “productive” visit. Kim is hopeful that his meeting with Xi will provide a “ground-breaking milestone” in developing mutual relations to “meet the demands of the new era”. Given the regional arithmetic of politics, and relations stakeholders maintain, it would have been highly unusual for Kim to meet Trump without seeing the Chinese President first. Seen from this perspective, Kim decision to visit Beijing for an audience with XI was the logical extension to his peace overtures starting with his New Year address. Despite the recent differences between Pyongyang and Beijing, Sino-Korean alliance still remains like the lips and teeth relationship and therefore Kim seeing Trump before seeing Xi would have been unthinkable.
If Kim is indeed sincere as one can read from his Beijing sojourn, the prospect for some positive outcome from his two summits with Moon in April and Trump in May might open a new chapter in regional politics and usher a new dawn in the Korean Peninsula. Yet, given the impetuous nature of both Trump and Kim, it is not easy to say with firm conviction the likely direction the summits would take. After softening stances for a while, both have immense capacity to retreat hardening stances again should things go not the way as they desire.
The writer is ICCR India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, Japan.
Views expressed are personal and do not represent either of the ICCR or the Government of India
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