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Is North Korea a player in the U.S.-China trade war?

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Kim Jong Un’s visit to Beijing this week was brief. After a 20-hour journey to the Chinese capital aboard his armored green train, the young North Korean leader spent barely a day at his destination. But it was still an important visit — and the target audience appears to be President Trump, who’s pursuing ambitious foreign-policy goals with both North Korea and China.

Kim’s fourth visit to China in 10 months wasn’t quite as spectacular as prior trips: Kim attended a banquet with President Xi Jinping on Tuesday evening, which was also his 35th birthday, The Washington Post’s Anna Fifield reported. The following morning, he toured a factory producing traditional Chinese medicines, had lunch with Xi and then headed back home.

Speaking to the state-run Global Times newspaper, Chinese analysts said the real focus of the trip was not pharmaceutical but geopolitical. North Korea and the United States are planning for a second meeting between Trump and Kim, a sequel to their historic meeting in Singapore last June.

Despite ambitious talk after that event, the first-ever summit between sitting North Korean and American leaders, each side has since accused the other of violating promises that were made. While North Korea has stopped overt testing of missiles and nuclear weapons, it has not denuclearized. Meanwhile, U.S. and U.N. sanctions on Pyongyang remain in place. The hope is that a second summit might make some real progress after months of stalling.

But Trump’s trade war with China complicates things. While Kim was in Beijing, negotiators from the United States were also in the city working on the next steps toward calming the economic standoff between the two nations.

Trump tweeted Tuesday that the talks were going “very well!” The Wall Street Journal’s Lingling Wei also reported some positive movement in the dispute after an unscheduled third day of discussions. Other observers, however, looked at the timing of Kim’s unannounced trip to Beijing and wondered about the effect it might have on U.S.-China trade diplomacy.

China has obvious reasons — at least theoretically — to gain from tying nuclear and trade diplomacy together. Xi could potentially use China’s leverage over North Korea as a valuable concession in trade talks with the United States, trading flexibility from Washington for more support in pressuring Pyongyang.

There’s no doubt Beijing has plenty of leverage over North Korea. China is, by far, Pyongyang’s largest trading partner — accounting for 90 percent of North Korea’s international trade volume since 2000, according to a recent report from the Korea Development Institute. One of the most impressive feats of Trump’s “maximum pressure” North Korea policy was persuading China to implement U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang, something it was long hesitant to do.

The reality may be somewhat different. It appears that China did expect to get more leeway on the trade issue if it helped push North Korea into talks with the United States last year. Indeed, Trump repeatedly said as much:

That clearly hasn’t worked. A little over a year after that tweet, the Trump administration imposed tariffs on China, sparking the trade war that he had seemed to be willing to postpone. But it’s also worth noting that Trump subtly criticized Xi last June for not sticking to the implementation of sanctions on North Korea. “He has really closed up that border,” Trump told reporters in Singapore. “Maybe a little less the last couple of months. That’s okay.”

As for North Korea, Kim could play China against the United States, turning to one for relief whenever the pressure from the other got to be too much. Trump continues to talk about his summit with Kim as a key foreign-policy victory, and the promise of further wins will be a potent bargaining chip for Pyongyang.

Scott Snyder wrote for the Council on Foreign Relations that Xi and Kim may be bound by “both mountains and rivers and by their respective efforts to manage Donald Trump.”

Despite their proximity and potentially shared interests, though, Xi and Kim can still seem like distant neighbors. Kim didn’t visit China for the first five years he was in power; Xi largely ignored the young North Korean leader in that time as well. The two men met face-to-face for the first time only shortly before the Trump-Kim summit last year. The Chinese leader has not made good on his talk of visiting Kim at home.

But for now, the two leaders may hope that their democratically elected peer, facing domestic political scandals, economic uncertainty and the start of the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign, may be eager to reach a deal that pleases all parties.

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