Only a few days into 2019 and the flurry of diplomacy which gripped the Korean Peninsula last year seems set to continue. At time of writing, Marshall Kim Jong Un has just arrived in Beijing for a previously unannounced visit to meet Chinese leader Xi Jingping for the fourth time in less that a year. With representatives from the US reportedly meeting in Hanoi over the last few days with officials from Pyongyang to discuss potential locations for a second US-DPRK summit, this summit with President Xi could be an effort to coordinate strategy before talks continue with Washington.
China is the most influential regional player and the only significant ally of Pyongyang. China also holds more leverage over Washington that Pyongyang does and so by building closer ties with Beijing, Marshall Kim Jong Un will be able to boast the support of China whilst at the negotiating table Donald Trump. The US and China are currently locked in a heated trade war which has only recently been brought to the negotiating table and so if Pyongyang has the support of China in all its demands it may encourage the United States to make more concessions than they previously did in an effort not to worsen Sino-US relations during the ongoing talks.
Pyongyang will also be wary not to make any concessions to the US which could risk angering Beijing. China controls over 90% of trade with North Korea either via direct trade between the countries or by controlling land and sea ports through which imported goods enter the hermetic state. During the 2017 crisis in the region, China supported crippling UNSC sanctions against the North’s oil which severely cut off access to fuel and crude oil to Pyongyang. As Washington continues to maintain it’s policy of ‘maximum pressure’ against Pyongyang during negotiations, China is the most likely to relax sanctions first, potentially along with Russia with whom a high-level summit is rumoured to be in the works for 2019.
In the wake of the 2019 New Year’s message from Chairman Kim, the closer ties to Beijing could be seen as a signal to the United States that there are other major countries that can help it rebuild its economy. The speech made clear that Pyongyang demands sanctions be lifted before denuclearisation can occur and even seemed to threaten returning to the war-like posture of 2017. This unannounced summit with Xi could be Pyongyang’s way of demonstrating to the US and it’s allies that China has their back if talks with Washington break down.
Previous summits between Xi and Kim Jong Un have not produced any significant declarations and are most likely dominated by discussions on how to deal with the evolving situation on the peninsula as opposed to bilateral agreements between Beijing and Pyongyang.