Why is this meeting important?
The first visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Pyongyang, as leader, kicked off this week with Xi’s arrival into Sunan International Airport amidst a celebratory atmosphere for a “State visit” with the Chairman Kim Jong Un. The summit, along with the preceding meetings between the two in Beijing and Dalian, have been successful in wiping the slate clean between the two countries whose diplomatic relationship has been a rollercoaster of hyperbole and distrust since Kim Jong Un’s acension. With the thawing in regional tensions in 2018, it seems Pyongyang has made relations with Beijing a top priority and has made it clear to the international community that, whilst the government has been reaching out diplomatically, its number one alliance is still with China.
The term ‘State visit’ is a term rarely heard coming out of the Korean Central News Agency. Perhaps a sign of the huge importance placed on this summit by the government in Pyongyang. Previous meetings with world leaders have often been referred to simply as ‘visits’. This significance is well founded; China is still the DPRK’s number one trading partner and its most powerful regional ally. Having the ear of China is having the ear of a country who sits as a permanent member on the UN Security Council and who controls the enforcement of international sanctions.
This visit is the first time a Chinese leader has visited the country since Hu Jintao in 2005. Xi Jinping previously visited the DPRK in his capacity as vice-President in 2008. Historically the two sides have maintained warm relations, with the phrase “as close as lips and teeth” being used to describe their relationship. Despite the recent rockiness, it seems that metaphor can’t be put to bed just yet.
What effect will this summit have on the denuclearisation situation?
Since his New Year’s address in 2018, Kim Jong Un has been broadening his international network and working to improve diplomatic relations with numerous countries, most notably the United States and South Korea. It’s still important however, that Pyongyang doesn’t neglect its most influential ally; China is increasingly looking like a more practical economic partner than the United States since Beijing is less likely to demand strict pre-conditions before investing. Similarly, the summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un earlier this year was a signal to Washington that the DPRK is building relationships with other countries who may be more willing to provide economic support and lift (or undermine) sanctions. This changes the power balance between the US and DPRK during nuclear talks since ‘economic assistance’ is no longer a gift which only America can provide.
It’s important to note that Xi has publicly supported the DPRK’s denuclearisation efforts. Kim Jong Un reportedly doubled-down on a statement which he issued during the first plenum of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly. He warned that whilst the DPRK would remain patient for the time being, he was fast losing that patience. For China, this summit comes at a time when relations with the US are deteriorating over trade. This summit is a good reminder to President Trump that China is still the diplomatic key to dealing with North Korea and so may nudge him into relaxing tariffs on Chinese goods in exchange for Beijing helping to jump-start the stalled nuclear negotiations.
What about economics?
It was reported in both Chinese and DPRK state media that the first round of talks between the leaders focused on economic cooperation rather than nuclear weapons. Perhaps this is a sign of Kim Jong Un’s continued priorities being to improve infrastructure and living standards, all under the banner of ‘socialist economic construction’. Whilst it may still be too early to tell if Kim’s administration will enact major reforms to the centrally planned economy, the major roadblock is still the sanctions issue.
Whilst the US continues to implement its ‘Maximum Pressure’ policy, the lack of tangible results may encourage other countries to begin to relax unilateral sanctions and allow a small amount of foreign direct investment into the country. This is especially important at a time when Kim Jong Un has unveiled great plans for cities such as Sinuiju, on the Chinese border, and Kanggye, the capital of Chagang province. Without funds, these projects can’t go ahead, and the entire economic campaign may grind to a halt. Economic stagnation isn’t something China wants to see in Korea and therefore may provide a few small ‘boosts’ where necessary in order to keep things moving forward.
What does the future hold for Korea post-summit?
In the near-term, Pyongyang could begin to move away from Washington and towards Beijing and Moscow. As Trump is increasingly unable to use economic assistance as a ‘reward’ for denuclearisation, we may see an increase in trade between the DPRK and China as their respective governments begin to tire of sanctions and restart cross-border economic projects.
Whether the US will be increasingly obsolete in economic negotiations remains to be seen although the wide network of relations that have been built up over the last two years could form a good foundation for restarting the six-party talks which broke down around 2009. This would provide a good venue for all sides to voice their respective concerns and work towards a conclusive all-round agreement to lift sanctions and limit the DPRK’s capacity to produce and deploy nuclear weapons.
As with all things though, the question at the centre of everything is: Will Pyongyang denuclearise? The answer looks increasingly like: “No, but they don’t need to”.
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