Comrade Kim goes to China: Did he have a choice?

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By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — The political choreography was classic. The staging was epic. But the outcome remains unpredictable. North Korea’s reclusive leader Kim Jong-Un and his entourage secretly rolled into Beijing on a special armored train later to be greeted and then feted by the Supreme Leader of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping.

Kim called the visit a “solemn duty” and added, “There is no question that my first foreign visit is to the Chinese capital.”

China then reciprocated with the splendor and pomp befitting a state visit for Pyongyang’s prodigal son who on many occasions had not shown the proper political deference to Beijing.

Kim Jong-Un on this first foreign visit, in Beijing.
Kim Jong-Un on his first foreign trip as N. Korean dictator, in Beijing.

In a scene reminiscent of the Godfather, the iconic 1970’s movie about powerful Mafia dons, North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-Un was summoned to meet his ultimate political boss in Beijing. For all the anxious twaddle about China and Pyongyang’s rocky political relations, at the end of the day, the road for the North Korean ruler ends in Beijing’s Forbidden City.

Pyongyang’s regime-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun editorially heralded, “A historic visit that unfolded a new era of North Korea-China friendship,” adding that a “blood alliance” unites the two communist countries. That clearly evokes the old time friendship when Chairman Mao said China and North Korea were as close as lips and teeth.

Yet in contemporary times, Kim Jong-Un’s regime has confronted East Asia with a dangerous nuclear showdown, which has without question been moderated to certain degree by Beijing’s hand. A regional conflict between nuclear North Korea and the USA would spill over into Mainland China too.

That’s bad for business in Beijing. It could be disastrous for South Korea and Japan.

That’s why when Comrade Kim told his Chinese hosts “he was committed to denuclearization,” there was an audible sigh of relief in Asian capitals and a raising of eyebrows in Washington.

Yet at the same time China, the eternal Middle Kingdom, has resoundingly reasserted its historic Big Brother relationship with Korea, now as it has for millennia. China’s patronage politically, diplomatically and through sanctions skirting back door trade, is what keeps North Korea afloat. Will China squeeze Kim to make a face-saving deal?

In the afterglow of South Korea’s successful PyeongChang Winter Olympics, there’s clearly a diplomatic thaw among the regional players which have been locked in a Cold War political permafrost. But once the North Koreans sent Kim’s sister to Seoul and PyeongChang on a charm offensive during the Olympiad, the pieces began to shift. South Korean President Moon Jae-In wisely took advantage of the flexibility and scheduled a summit with his North Korean rivals.

Then quite unexpectedly U.S. President Donald Trump broke the logjam and called for a meeting with Kim Jong-Un.

Donald Trump’s politically audacious move not only caught the North Koreans off guard, but stunned China. In effect the Donald’s chessboard move threatened to marginalize China’s historic influence on the Korean Peninsula, and by extension, rebalance Japan’s security interests in the region.

Tough United Nations Sanctions are squeezing Kim Jong-Un’s options. China has significantly reduced its petroleum exports as well as coal and other key materials to North Korea. And the UN Security Council has yet again ramped up tougher economic measures on North Korea’s maritime smuggling and clandestine trade. U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley stated, “The approval of this historic sanctions package is a clear sign that the international community is united in our efforts to keep up maximum pressure on the North Korean regime.”

North Korea needs political and diplomatic leverage in the upcoming talks both with South Korea as well as with the USA. Kim Jong-Un knows his nuclear weapons present Pyongyang with a valuable bargaining chip but at the same time paint a target on the quaintly titled Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Realistically only China can rebalance the equation, but is not going to let Pyongyang continue to play its reckless nuclear and missile testing which precipitated the crisis in the first place. The UN Security Council is not ready to blink for Kim.

Though Western diplomats and the Japanese will demand denuclearization on the recalcitrant North, it’s clearly democratic and prosperous South Korea that stands the most to gain or lose in any deal; after all they share the divided peninsula. South Korea may ultimately inherit the North’s moribund Marxist state.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]