President Donald Trump once said there was "love" between him and
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but Xi Jinping is intruding into the
relationship to remind them that China is an indispensable chaperone in their
nuclear dance. With his first trip to Pyongyang as president, Xi took another
big step to patching up his tattered relations with Kim, whose nuclear tests
prompted Beijing to join UN sanctions against its longtime ally.
visit, which ended Friday, will also serve the Chinese leader in his
complicated relationship with Trump, as they prepare to hold talks on their
trade war at the G20 summit in Japan next week. Months after Trump declared
that he and Kim had fallen "in love", their nuclear talks faltered as
their second summit in Vietnam in February ended without an agreement.
Trump has also
repeatedly called Xi his "friend", but their own negotiations to end
the US-China tariffs war broke down last month. With Trump's relationship with
Kim on the rocks, Xi has found an opening. After the North Korean leader
travelled to China four times in the past year, Xi has finally reciprocated,
declaring in North Korea's official newspaper that the friendship between their
nations was "irreplaceable".
Kim gave Xi a
lavish welcome, inviting him to the "Mass Games", an epic music and
dance show in a packed stadium that featured the song "I love you
China" and a giant portrait of Xi. "(Xi) wants to use his visit to
Pyongyang to demonstrate to President Trump that China's role on the Korean
Peninsula is indispensable," said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia
at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"And if Xi
can persuade Kim to resume talks with the US, he hopes that Trump will ease up
pressure on trade," Glaser said. Glaser noted that Trump himself made the
link between a trade deal and China helping with North Korea. But Trump has
also seen Xi as a potentially negative influence on Kim, calling him a
"world-class poker player" last year, as he noted a change of
attitude by the North Korean leader after meeting the Chinese president.
In talks on
Thursday, Xi told Kim that he was "willing to strengthen coordination and
cooperation" with North Korea and other parties, and play a "positive
and constructive role" in achieving denuclearization of the Korean
Peninsula, according to Chinese state media. Ahn Chan-il, a North Korean
defector and researcher in Seoul, said Xi is using North Korea as leverage in
his own confrontation with the United States. "Xi and North Korea... are
saying the Beijing-Pyongyang alliance forged in blood will not be affected by
Trump, regardless of any economic incentives to effect a change," he said.
fought alongside the North in the Korean War, remains Pyongyang's main
diplomatic and economic backer despite tensions over the nuclear issue. Lu
Chao, a North Korean expert at China's Liaoning academy of social sciences,
said Beijing "will certainly play a major role in mediating the return of
the DPRK and the United States to the negotiating table." But Lu said it
was wrong to think that China would use North Korea as a bargaining chip-a
notion that the Chinese foreign ministry has also rejected.
No Midas Touch
professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, said ties
between China and North Korea have not been "fully repaired" just
yet, as China still enforces UN sanctions. "With the improvement of
Sino-DPRK relations, China can restore some influence on the DPRK, but the main
thing is that Kim Jong Un makes his own decisions," Shi said.
In a sign that
the neighbours are not always in sync, North Korean media did not carry
comments by Kim reported by Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, which quoted him as
saying that he was "willing to be patient" in the talks with the US,
but wanted "the parties concerned" to meet him halfway.
China Daily sought to play down Xi's influence on North Korea. "The world
may hope that the Chinese leader has the magic touch that can turn a stone to
gold," the newspaper said in an editorial. "But it is unrealistic to
expect that Xi can solve all the peninsula issues with a two-day visit-even if
Beijing has always been the most reliable and considerate partner to