BEIJING — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is in China. Again.
On Tuesday evening, Kim and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, were welcomed by Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan. Photos from the event show Kim and Xi shaking hands in front of a row of Chinese and North Korean flags — a visual echo of Kim and Trump’s much-photographed handshake in Singapore.
Xi reportedly praised the outcome of the Singapore summit, calling it an “important step toward the political solution of the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue,” according to the party-
On Wednesday, North Korean state media said Kim and Xi reached an understanding on denuclearization and other issues following the Singapore summit. The report by the Korean Central News Agency did not give details on the views shared by the two leaders. But in the past, North Korea defined denuclearization as including an end to the U.S.-South Korean military alliance and a shift in U.S. defense policies to end nuclear protection for South Korea and Japan.
During Kim’s previous trips outside the country, including the Singapore summit, North Korea’s state media waited until he returned home before reporting its version of the talks.
Although details are scarce, the timing and staging of Kim’s trip sends a clear message about Beijing’s place at the center of East Asian diplomacy — and its power over Pyongyang.
With U.S.-China trade ties on the rocks, Kim is well-positioned to play both powers, talking sweet to Trump while pursuing a closer relationship with Xi.
“Although it seems there is a blooming romance between Kim Jong Un and Trump, Kim understands the hierarchy. He knows that Xi is the Asian Godfather,” said Yanmei Xie, a China policy analyst at Gavekal Dragonomics, an economic research firm in Beijing. “He is making a pragmatic calculation that China can provide economic assistance to integrate North Korea diplomatically and economically into Northeast Asia.”
Kim’s visit to China this week will renew questions about what happens post-Singapore. Although Trump has taken great pains to cast last week’s summit as an unqualified success, the next steps are not clear.
With North Korea’s nuclear tests halted for now, and August’s war games off, China may be willing to cut North Korea some slack.
In Beijing, Kim is likely to ask Xi to ease up on economic sanctions — something the United States strongly opposes.
Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at a news conference in Beijing with Foreign Minister Wang Yi that China “acknowledged that the sanctions regime that is in place today will remain in place until such time as that denuclearization is in fact complete.”
But the problem is that there is no consensus on what “denuclearization” means. The United States wants North Korea to abandon the nuclear weapons program that it took years to build — an outcome experts see as extremely unlikely.
“There is a regional effort, a sort of Northeast Asia coalition of make-believe, to maintain the fiction that the North Korea will de-nuke as long as Americans keep talking to it,” Xie said.
China is less focused on getting Kim to give away his weapons than on getting him to fall into line. It may eventually use trade and investment to keep him onside, experts said.
With North Korea still struggling under U.N. sanctions, “China’s political and economic support is still highly important,” said Zhao Tong, a North Korea expert at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing.
Zhao said the question now is: “How can China help North Korea develop its economy?”
China can also help Kim normalize North Korea’s diplomatic status. That starts with treating him less like a rogue dictator and more like a visiting statesman.
On Kim’s first visit as leader, in March, he arrived unannounced aboard an armored train. Beijing did not disclose his presence, or publish photos, until he left.
Kim met Xi a second time in May in the Chinese city of Dalian. Photographs of the two leaders strolling and chatting by the seaside were not released until Kim was on his way home.
On Tuesday evening, Chinese news media released photographs of Kim meeting Xi at the Great Hall of the People, where he often greets visiting dignitaries — the first time photos of Kim in China have been released while a visit was in progress.
Brian Murphy in Seoul and Shirley Zhao and Yang Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.