China and North Korea, best friends forever?

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By Donald Kirk

There is a certain inevitability about China’s need for North Korea and the North’s need for China. The two may intuitively hate one another, but they can hardly stay apart in the regional tug of war. It’s been that way ever since Chinese forces poured into North Korea to stave off the Americans who had reached the Yalu River line between the two, several months after the North Koreans invaded South Korea in June 1950.

Now, as the Chinese and Americans again face one another in a standoff that seems likely to worsen, President Xi Jinping has received Kim Jong-Un on an historic mission from North Korea despite misgivings about Kim’s nuclear program. Xi may have hitherto ignored Kim as a supplicant anxious to see him, but ugly realities dictated a change of heart.

Kim Jong-Un in Beijing, China. / AFP / Getty

One reality is that America under President Donald Trump is raising the specter of a trade war with new tariffs aimed largely against China on top of military confrontation all around China’s rim. Could it be coincidental that a special North Korean train, not seen in Beijing since Kim Jong-Un’s late father Kim Jong-Il bowed before China’s leaders in several visits to the Chinese capital, arrived in Beijing so soon after Trump announced his tariffs?

And why would President Xi receive any delegation from North Korea if he were not also interested in shoring up China’s defenses along a vulnerable frontier that remains a barrier to U.S. power as it did during the Korean War?

U.S. forces again teaming up with the South Koreans in annual war games is just one annoyance. China also has to consider Japan’s moves to the right under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has advocated revising Japan’s post-war “peace” constitution banning Japanese forces from joining in foreign wars.

China’s concerns, all around its periphery, are most clearly acute in the South China Sea to which the Chinese steadfastly claim rights of ownership. The Chinese media issued taunts as the U.S. aircraft carrier Carl Vinson showed the American flag in those waters after calling at Danang, the port city in central Vietnam where U.S. marines were headquartered during the Vietnam War.

Xi, by inviting Kim to Beijing, clearly felt the need to make sure he’s on the same wave length as the North Koreans. Kim had to have intimated what he plans to say when he meets South Korea’s President Moon Jae-In in the truce village of Panmunjom next month and maybe Trump the month after.

As he did to a South Korean delegation that called on him in Pyongyang after the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, Kim expressed to Xi his “willingness” to abandon his nuclear program. North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests may not set off alarms in Beijing as loudly they do in Washington, but Xi pointedly stressed the need for “denuclearization” as indeed have both the American and South Korean presidents.

But why did it seem necessary for Kim to go to Beijing to hear all that from Xi when previously Xi was accustomed to sending emissaries to Pyongyang to register his discontent and try and bring the North Koreans into line?

On his first trip outside North Korea since taking over after the death of his father, Kim Jong-Il, in 2011, Kim clearly had another priority. He has to get out from under onerous sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council, with China’s consent, after Kim ordered more nuclear tests and tests of long-range ballistic missiles capable of carrying warheads to targets in the U.S.

Xi in turn might lavish gifts on the North Koreans. Just imagine how much the North has been hurting while China abides by sanctions, curtailing the flow of oil that North Korea needs to fuel its decrepit economy and cutting off the import of North Korean coal. China has hitherto made a show of going along with sanctions, but Trump’s tariffs may be more worrisome to the Chinese than North Korea’s nukes.

Having slowed the oil flow in conformance with sanctions, Chinese bureaucrats at Xi’s behest should suddenly be able to provide the aid, comfort and oil the North Koreans need while the Americans and South Koreans play their annual war games close to the line with North Korea ― and not all that far from Chinese territory too.

Donald Kirk has been covering war and peace in Asia for decade