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Did Xi Jinping’s Pyongyang visit restart denuclearization diplomacy?

Xi’s visit may have come at a vital moment for Kim Jong Un.

- June 26, 2019

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s June 20-21 state visit to Pyongyang may have breathed new life into diplomacy on North Korean denuclearization. There had been little apparent progress on this front since President Trump’s failed talks with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in Hanoi in February.

Since Xi’s visit to Pyongyang, Trump has responded to a letter sent by the North Korean leader. Analysts expect Xi and Trump to discuss North Korea when the two leaders meet during this week’s Group of 20 talks in Osaka. After the G-20, Trump will stop in Seoul for talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has noted that U.S. and North Korean officials are in back-channel discussions about a third Trump-Kim meeting.

What does this flurry of correspondence and meetings mean for diplomacy on Korean denuclearization? Here are five things to know:

1. These aren’t easy conversations to reboot

The United States and China have been locked in an escalating battle over trade and economic policies. Sanctions on North Korea have reportedly hit Kim loyalists hard and have further weakened the North Korean economy. The abrupt failure of the Trump-Kim Hanoi summit also blindsided the South Korean leadership and weakened Moon’s political standing at home.

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During the Trump administration’s first year, Beijing joined Washington in pressuring the North Korean regime to negotiate on denuclearization by sharply curbing economic ties. In 2018, Chinese imports from North Korea dropped nearly 90 percent from the previous year. Previously, China’s policy line had been unwavering: Absent credible assurances that the United States sought neither regime change in Pyongyang nor contemplated military action, there could be no denuclearization progress. China was also concerned that regime destabilization could create a humanitarian catastrophe, bringing large numbers of North Korean refugees into northeast China.

However, Pyongyang’s threatening posture and aggressive nuclear and missile testing prompted a shift in Chinese policy. There were fears in China about nuclear contamination from North Korea’s test sites, located near the China-North Korea border. Also, the U.S. decision in 2017 to move forward with plans to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea rendered China’s strategic deterrent vulnerable.

2. The China-North Korea relationship has grown strained

China’s more rigorous enforcement of stiff U.N. sanctions starting in 2017 may have contributed to Kim’s willingness to negotiate. However, this also strained relations between China and its formal ally to a near breaking point. The two countries issued rare verbal attacks on each other through their state-run media, with North Korea calling Chinese commentaries advocating tougher sanctions “an undisguised threat.”

Xi’s visit this month to Pyongyang, the first by a Chinese president in 14 years, opens the door to a reset in China-North Korea relations along more traditional lines. Xi’s visit — timed to commemorate the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries — featured flower-waving masses and pro-China songs, all structured to highlight the two countries’ historical friendship and socialist ties.

Xi was the first foreign leader North Korea received at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun — the former residence of founding leader Kim Il-sung and now a mausoleum where the bodies of Kim and his son Kim Jong Il lie in state. Xi also visited a memorial for Chinese soldiers who died fighting for North Korea in the Korean War (1950-1953). An article by Xi published in North Korea ahead of his visit promised China’s “firm support” for North Korea’s “new strategic line … no matter how the international situation changes.”

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3. Xi’s visit appeared to come at a vital moment for Kim Jong Un

Xi and Kim concluded their summit June 21 with a commitment to “close strategic communication” and to strengthen cooperation “in every field.” Xi agreed that China would support North Korea’s security and development concerns. Reports suggest Xi may have including proposed unspecified “cooperation projects.” Historically, Beijing has used economic incentives to induce Pyongyang to cooperate on denuclearization talks.

Some North Korea watchers believe Kim is under intense political pressure to retreat from engagement with the outside. They see signs that conservatives in North Korea are attacking the diplomatic efforts and economic reforms that have been a hallmark of Kim’s leadership.

Political pressure to return to previous “military-first” policies prioritizing defense over the civilian economy — and against expanding contact with the outside world — may close Kim’s chance to engage in nuclear diplomacy. Nothing less than Kim’s hold on power could be at stake.

4. Trump may play the waiting game

For Trump, making headway on Korean denuclearization has far less immediate political significance than it does for Kim. Nonetheless, Trump appears to want to end North Korea’s nuclear threat and indicated via Twitter that a third summit with Kim would be “good.” Trump called the letter he received from Kim “beautiful.” Kim praised Trump’s recent letter for its “excellent content,” commending Trump’s “political judging faculty and extraordinary courage.”

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Trump has suggested, however, the two sides’ negotiators must make more progress before he could commit to another face-to-face with Kim. The Hanoi summit collapsed over basic differences: The U.S. insists North Korea give up its nuclear weapons before ending sanctions; Pyongyang demands an incremental approach, with rewards for progress on denuclearization.

More fundamentally, the two sides differ over the definition of denuclearization. The U.S. wants to see North Korea abandon existing nuclear weapons and end its nuclear and missile programs. North Korea sees denuclearization as an end to U.S. threats to North Korea through its military alliance with South Korea (and also Japan), entailing a tacit “nuclear umbrella.” These differences will be hard to bridge.

5. Are there benefits to jump-starting diplomacy now?

Improved relations between China and North Korea may reduce Kim’s willingness to make concessions in nuclear talks — and that could prove an added incentive for Trump to meet with Kim.

Events beyond the region may ultimately drive Trump to seek a third summit with Kim. During Xi’s Pyongyang visit, Trump ordered, then aborted, a strike on Iran. Thirteen months earlier, his administration withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal.

On the one hand, Trump may calculate that a threatening U.S. posture toward Iran may enhance the odds he can make a favorable deal with Kim. On the other, after U.S. allies, including Japan, demonstrated that their support for military action cannot be ordered but will require persuasion, it may be that Trump is more disposed to give diplomacy another chance.

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Carla P. Freeman is on the China studies faculty and directs the Foreign Policy Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).