SEOUL, South Korea — Chinese President Xi Jinping travels to North Korea to meet leader Kim Jong Un this week looking to strengthen their sometimes shaky bond at a time when both are locked in dispute with the United States — Xi over trade and Kim over nuclear weapons.
Here’s a look at what both Xi and Kim may be trying to achieve with the first visit to Pyongyang of a Chinese leader in 14 years.
WHAT XI WANTS
The trip comes as Xi is locked in a costly trade war with U.S. President Donald Trump and ahead of an expected meeting between the leaders later this month at the G20 summit in Japan.
Xi’s meeting with Kim could be seen as a way for the Chinese leader to send Trump a subtle, yet still barbed message: Washington must bend on trade if it wants China to use its leverage as a regional powerbroker on its sometimes recalcitrant ally North Korea.
“Xi can send a message to the United States that says, ‘If you accept our positon in the trade war, we can relay your nuclear position to Pyongyang and help you get some progress'” on the nuclear issue, said Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University who served as president of the Institute for National Security Strategy, a think tank affiliated with South Korea’s main spy agency.
Beijing may also be trying to demonstrate that, depending on what Washington does on trade, it can use its influence to disrupt U.S.-North Korea diplomacy.
“Xi’s leverage is a knife with two sides,” said Lee Seong-hyon, director of Chinese studies at South Korea’s Sejong Institute.
Talks between the U.S. and North Korea collapsed during a February summit where Trump rejected Kim’s push for major sanctions relief in return for partial denuclearization steps.
Kim has since given Trump a deadline of the end of this year to work out new, acceptable denuclearization proposals. Trump has maintained that sanctions will stay in place, but has still left the door open for more talks.
Experts are divided over how much influence China has over North Korea, which often continued high-profile nuclear and missile tests in recent years despite Beijing’s objections.
Still, the links between the allies are real: More than 90% of North Korea’s foreign trade has gone through China, and some experts say Beijing’s backing of harsh U.N. sanctions imposed in 2016 and 2017 helped inspire Kim’s diplomatic outreach beginning in early 2018. Many observers report still thriving illicit border trade between the two countries amid China’s lax enforcement of international sanctions.
Xi may also be looking to use his Pyongyang trip as a way to divert international attention away from embarrassing protests in Hong Kong that have shaken the “one country, two systems” framework that governs the semi-autonomous city.
“For Xi, Hong Kong is a much more important issue than North Korea,” said Lim Eul Chul, a scholar at South Korea’s Kyungnam University. “He wants to deflect attention from Hong Kong and buy time.”
WHAT KIM WANTS
Kim wants what he has always wanted: Relief from crippling economic sanctions, while making as few concessions on his nuclear program as possible.
Although Trump has continued to praise Kim in the U.S. media, there hasn’t been any change to the generally hard-line U.S. position on sanctions or denuclearization. Kim will be looking for China’s help to pressure the United States into easing that stance.
“Kim will try to get Xi to endorse more strongly the North’s push for incremental (disarmament) steps in exchange for U.S. concessions and to oppose strengthened sanctions or military pressure,” said Wi Sung-lac, a former South Korean envoy to six-nation nuclear talks that the involved the Koreas, China, the United States, Russia and Japan.
Xi will likely do that, but could also urge Kim to show a stronger commitment to dialogue and refrain from provocations like weapons tests, Wi said. After February’s failed Trump-Kim summit, the North expressed its displeasure with short-range missile tests and belligerent rhetoric against Washington and Seoul.
China has traditionally provided North Korea with aid after previous leaders’ summits, and Xi may do the same this time.
“China won’t likely openly ignore and violate U.N. sanctions, but it could strengthen its backchannel assistance or humanitarian shipments” to the North, said Shin Beomchul of Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies. Simply not clamping down on illegal border trade “would be a big help for North Korea.”
Both Kim and Xi will likely want to avoid a full-blown diplomatic fight with the United States. Kim recently sent a letter to Trump that the U.S. president called “beautiful,” a development that experts say show Kim’s intention to maintain good relations with Trump.
In the end, the summit might produce very little outwardly. Maybe something routine, such as an agreement to bolster strategic communication and policy coordination and another expression of commitment to a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.
In the end, the prospects for a nuclear settlement still largely depend on whether Kim is genuinely committed to relinquishing an arsenal he may see as his strongest guarantee for survival.