TOKYO — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wants to talk to President Trump about “phased and synchronous measures” to deal with the standoff over the North’s nuclear program, Chinese state media reported Tuesday after Kim made his second visit to China in as many months.
This wording, coupled with Kim’s desire to “eventually achieve denuclearization and lasting peace on the peninsula,” will ring alarm bells in Washington as it reinforces suspicions that the North Korean leader will ask Trump to take simultaneous steps to reduce tensions.
The U.S. president said Tuesday in Washington that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was en route to North Korea to finalize a date and location for a meeting between Trump and Kim. It would be the first such parley between a sitting American president and a North Korean leader.
“This wording about a ‘phased approach’ shows that this is going to be a process,” said Patrick McEachern, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center who previously worked on North Korea at the State Department.
“There are no home runs here. Success in diplomacy with North Korea is going to be a series of singles, with some strikeouts and errors along the way,” he said.
There is considerable skepticism among analysts that Kim, having tried so hard to get a credible nuclear weapons program, is about to give it all up — certainly not without extracting major concessions from the United States. That could include reducing the U.S. military footprint in South Korea.
Kim made the remarks during a two-day visit to the Chinese port city of Dalian, not far from the North Korean border, where he met with President Xi Jinping, Xinhua reported Tuesday . His younger sister and close aide, Kim Yo Jong, also was seen at the meetings.
“Xi held talks with Kim and hosted a welcome banquet for him. Together, they also took a stroll and attended a luncheon,” the state news agency reported, noting that the meeting took place in a “cordial and friendly atmosphere.”
During their talks, Xi noted that Kim has recently made active efforts to promote dialogue and that ongoing diplomatic efforts are “conducive to a political solution,” Xinhua reported.
Xi was reportedly in the northeastern city to attend a ceremony marking the test launch of China’s first entirely domestically produced aircraft carrier.
Shortly afterward, North Korea’s most authoritative news anchor, Ri Chun Hee, took to the country’s airwaves to announce the visit. Her appearance — she delivers only the most important news — underscores the Kim regime’s emphasis on the current efforts at detente.
The news of another visit, complete with photos of Kim and Xi walking in the sunshine and looking relaxed on an outdoor deck, highlights China’s desire to be right in the middle of the burst of diplomacy surrounding North Korea.
For his part, Kim could be trying to improve ties with Xi — which have been frosty, to put it mildly — in case his outreach to Trump falls flat, analysts say.
As it did with Kim’s train trip to Beijing in March, speculation had been rife ahead of the announcement that he had traveled to Dalian, after citizens reported tightened security and traffic controls in the surrounding area. Then Kim’s personal jet and another plane belonging to North Korea’s state airline were spotted at an airport near the city.
This visit is part of a remarkable series of events over the past few months.
On Jan. 1, Kim was threatening to send nuclear-tipped missiles to the United States, and Trump was warning of military options for dealing with the North Korean leader.
Then, precipitated by talks held during the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February, North Korea started responding to the outside world’s overtures.
Kim traveled to Beijing in March, his first journey abroad since becoming leader in late 2011, for a red-carpet visit accompanied by his wife and top members of his regime.
Late last month, Kim crossed the demilitarized zone into South Korea to meet President Moon Jae-in for a summit during which they signed a statement agreeing to the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula.
That summit was considered a warm-up act for the meeting with Trump.
The U.S. president has said that Kim’s sudden interest in talking is the direct result of the United States’ “maximum pressure” policy toward the North Korean regime.
Many analysts agree that this is at least part of the reason for Kim’s sudden about-face. But they say it is also because the 34-year-old, having achieved his goal of developing a credible nuclear weapons program, is turning his attention to the economy.
Kim in 2013 announced a “simultaneous push” policy of developing the nuclear program and the economy at the same time. Last year he demonstrated he had missiles that could technically reach the entire U.S. mainland and that he had a huge nuclear bomb.
But the international sanctions imposed as punishment for those efforts are severely hurting the North Korean economy, in no small part because China has been aggressively enforcing them.
Beijing has long prioritized North Korean regime stability over nuclear punishments, but the specter of U.S. military strikes appears to have convinced Xi that possible instability was preferable to war on its border.
News of a second meeting between Kim and Xi so soon after the first one surprised analysts.
Yanmei Xie, a senior China policy analyst at Gavekal Dragonomics in Beijing, noted that Xinhua reported that Kim came to China to “brief” Xi on what the news agency called the rapid development of the regional situation.
“This is Kim demonstrating to Xi and the rest of the world that despite warming relations with the South and prospect for mending ties with Washington, China-North Korea relations take precedence over all else,” she said.
Lu Chao, a Korea specialist at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences in Shenyang, not far from Dalian, said this latest meeting disproved contentions that China was not playing a central role in diplomatic developments related to North Korea.
“It’s impossible to exclude China from things happening on the Korean Peninsula,” he said. “It’s been a consensus among U.S. presidents that without China, it’s very tough to solve the Korean Peninsula issue.”
Others said it could be a sign of real discussions about denuclearization.
“If Kim Jong Un is in China again, there might be some real substantive negotiations going on,” said Tong Zhao, a nuclear policy expert at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing. “Maybe North Korea and the U.S. are thinking about making some radical concessions.”
South Korea has repeatedly said that the North is willing to discuss its nuclear program in talks with the United States, although “denuclearization” has not been defined. The language in the April 27 agreement has many American analysts worried that Kim will insist on U.S. military drawdowns from South Korea as part of any deal.
Although there is considerable skepticism in the United States and Japan about whether North Korea is genuine in its detente efforts, analysts point out that Kim appears to want to move on from nuclear to economic development.
“I do think North Korea would have a very strong interest to pivot to economic development,” Zhao said. “In this regard, it would have a strong motivation to build much stronger economic ties with China, South Korea and Russia.”
The South Korean government is exploring ways to increase economic cooperation with North Korea without breaching international sanctions or earning the ire of Trump. Reports from the Chinese-North Korean border suggest that Chinese authorities have already lost much of their enthusiasm for enforcing existing sanctions.
But Xie of Gavekal Dragonomics said that, deep down, Kim knows Washington and Seoul are unlikely to lift sanctions anytime soon and that he has to rely on China for economic relief.
“By receiving Kim twice in such a short span of time and flaunting the bilateral ‘traditional friendship,’ Beijing is demonstrating that the two countries’ positions are now fully aligned, and discord is a thing of the past,” she said.
Denyer reported from Beijing. Shirley Feng in Beijing contributed to this report.