BEIJING — Buried in the platitudinous Chinese coverage of Kim Jong Un’s third trip to China, between references to “safeguarding world and regional peace” and “a lasting peace,” were some revealing little nuggets about the gap between Presidents Trump and Xi Jinping over North Korea.
Since the Singapore summit, the watchword around the world has been “denuclearization.” Trump said it. Xi said it. Even Kim Jong Un — who has spent his years in power repeatedly threatening to rain nuclear fire on his enemies — said it, albeit with caveats.
Given how much “denuclearization” is talked about, you’d figure that every player is laser-focused on getting Kim to give up his nukes ASAP. And yet, that is not exactly the case.
While Trump appears to be betting that Kim will quickly abandon the nuclear program his country just built, Xi seems to be wagering that he won’t. Though China surely wants a nuclear-free North Korea, one day, its immediate aim is getting Kim on its side and making North Korea stable.
Chinese press coverage of Kim’s third visit said lots about denuclearization but also sought to shift the narrative, to make this a story about an isolated and economically backward nation blossoming in the light of socialism with Chinese characteristics.
Ten paragraphs into an account of the meet, China's official Xinhua News Agency offered a glimpse of this vision:
This year marks the 40th anniversary of China’s reform and opening-up policy. Xi said that since the reform and opening-up, the Chinese people have been courageous to carry out self-reform and innovation, on the basis of the national conditions and having the whole world in view, and have explored a development path suitable for China’s national conditions.
“We are happy to see that the DPRK made a major decision to shift the focus to economic construction, and the development of the DPRK’s socialist cause has entered a new stage in history,” Xi said, adding that China supports the DPRK’s economic development, the improvement of people’s livelihood, and its development path that accords with its national conditions.
What’s striking here is that Xi seems to be marking this moment as the start of North Korea’s “new chapter,” not the start of a dealmaking process with the United States.
While Washington insists that there will be no sanctions relief until North Korea denuclearizes completely, China may be willing to work with Kim well before that.
The second day of Kim’s visit to Beijing was all about economic tutelage. The North Korean dictator toured a lab run by the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and stopped by a Beijing rail traffic control center — the first step, perhaps, in the shift to “economic construction” that Xi praised, per Xinhua.
It’s not just China. On Wednesday, en route to Moscow, South Korean President Moon Jae-in told reporters that the lifting of U.N. sanctions on North Korea could pave the way for investment in railroads, natural gas and electricity.
“North Korea could take part in bilateral [economic] cooperation between Russia and South Korea should a peace regime settle in the region,” said Moon, according to news reports. This type of cooperation would “lead to a tremendous boon to the North’s economy and national growth,” he added.
On the Chinese border, people are already starting to speculate on real estate, betting that North Korea’s integration into the global economy is at hand. A Reuters report called the border the “ultimate frontier market.”
If Kim’s cozy China visit doesn’t catch Trump's attention, that just might.
Yang Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.