Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping take centre stage in diplomatic drama on the Korean peninsula
Cary Huang says through their surprise meeting, the leaders of China and North Korea have upended expectations for Donald Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong-un, re-established China as a central player in Korea, and possibly made Kim a global player
Diplomacy is a drama where all the actors have parts to play. Lately, all of a sudden, we have seen all of today’s major actors in global diplomacy scrambling to move to centre stage in a flurry of dramatic manoeuvres.
Nothing has been more dramatic than North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s hasty visit to China and his face-to-face encounter with Chinese President Xi Jinping, following the surprise announcement that he would take part in summits with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump.
Just a few weeks ago, the world was overwhelmed with fears of a potential nuclear war, as Kim and Trump traded threats, each claiming the availability of a “nuclear button” at their desks. Now summit diplomacy has replaced all the combative warmongering rhetoric.
Virtually the whole world, including Washington and Beijing, has agreed on the denuclearisation of the peninsula. Thus Kim’s stunning shift in stance has played a key role in the recent dramatic change in global diplomacy. This is in sharp contrast to 2017, when the young North Korean leader oversaw a host of nuclear and missile tests eliciting the fury of the international community.
Kim knows well the risk of this game, acknowledging that Trump might shift to a more coercive approach or even a military strike should diplomacy fail. The recent appointment of the ultra-hawkish John Bolton as national security adviser has underscored the administration’s determination.
Pyongyang needs Beijing’s support, even as it seeks direct negotiations with Washington. The Kim-Xi summit apparently showcased improved ties between the communist allies, which might be a bargaining chip for Kim in his encounter with Trump.
Pyongyang may also be hoping China will ease up on sanctions, considering their growing impact on the North’s embattled economy. Owing to pressure from Trump, Beijing has been relatively strict about enforcing the sanctions.
Furthermore, Beijing was as desperate as Kim for such a summit, as the recent flurry of diplomatic progress had left Beijing out of negotiations and threatened to sideline it. That they finally met has several implications.
First, the China visit and summit with Xi were Kim’s first since he came to office in 2011, which underscores the importance of bilateral ties and strengthens Beijing’s hand on peninsular issues.
Second, the Kim-Xi summit emphasised the improvement of bilateral relations between the long-time communist allies, which had been at their lowest ebb in decades, thanks to Beijing’s support of United Nations sanctions. Kim’s purges of several key officials with close ties to Beijing, including his uncle Jang Song-thaek, and the assassination of Kim’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, had also riled Beijing.
Third, the Kim-Xi encounter allows Beijing to keep informed of Pyongyang’s stance and tactics. Beijing was also able to let Pyongyang know what China’s interests are.
Fourth, the Kim-Xi summit has brought Beijing back onto the diplomatic centre stage in the world’s most-watched diplomatic drama.
Fifth, with US-China relations deteriorating rapidly in recent months, following the Trump administration’s series of anti-China actions, Beijing has become more eager to regain its influence on the Korean peninsula, which it sees as its backyard, and which serves as China’s strategic buffer zone against the United States.
The history of failed negotiations with Pyongyang makes many observers sceptical of any significant progress in the upcoming summits. But whatever the result, Kim will be the biggest winner in his diplomatic debut, as the events have placed him, leader of the world’s most isolated and impoverished nation, on centre stage along with the world leaders Trump and Xi, performing this historic four-way diplomatic drama.
If the summits succeed, Kim might also become a peacemaker overnight, following his completion of his nuclear programme, in defiance of a seemingly united world.
Cary Huang is a senior writer at the Post