In our 2018 Second-Quarter Forecast, Stratfor laid out how North Korea would use its diplomatic warming to break out of the cycle of increasing tensions over the past year. And with a second visit from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in just a few months, China is signaling that it will not sit on the sidelines as the United States and North Korea begin forging a new relationship.
In preparation for his high-stakes summit with U.S. President Donald Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has made a second unexpected visit to China. Kim traveled by airplane to the northeastern Chinese city of Dalian for a two-day stay from May 7 to 8, reportedly accompanied by his sister Kim Yo Jong. He met with President Xi Jinping, who was already scheduled to travel to Dalian for a sea trial of China's first domestically built aircraft carrier, as were Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Huning.
During the visit, Kim told Xi that North Korean denuclearization could be achievable if "relevant parties" end their hostility and threats against North Korea, referring to the United States and its allies. After this conversation, Xi made a phone call to Trump to discuss trade and North Korea, agreeing on the value of continuing to implement sanctions until North Korea permanently dismantles its nuclear and missile programs.
The dynamic on the Korean Peninsula has refocused in recent months to direct engagement among the United States and the two Koreas, after over a year of weapons testing and rising tensions. Now, China has grown eager to assert its role more strongly in fostering an open dialogue. Much about Trump and Kim's meeting remains uncertain, but China at least wants to ensure that it remains part of the conversation; already Beijing has reportedly been frustrated with South Korea's model of a trilateral Washington-Seoul-Pyongyang format.
Besides wanting to help prevent a disastrous military outcome, China is also driven by a desire to advance its interests on the peninsula. Beijing intends to stay informed about U.S. strategy and is reportedly already talking about the withdrawal of the U.S. Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system from South Korea.
Finally, China wants to play a role in any denuclearization-related discussions in order to increase its stake in the envisaged peace accord for the Korean War. China's dominant economic position in North Korea and its position as a signatory to the 1953 armistice mean that it will, in some way, need to be involved in any emerging agreement. In fact, the recently signed Panmunjom Declaration between the two Koreas included promises to complete an inter-Korean rail link that would also reach China. Dalian, as a major center of northeast China, would be a critical node in any future economic cooperation with North Korea.
North Korea, for its part, has been using its growing relationship with China as a way of securing a bulwark for its negotiations with the United States while also clearing a path to a reunified, independent and assertive Korea. This means, in part, relying less on Chinese economic support — and maintaining warming ties with the United States is one way to achieve this goal. However, the Trump-Kim summit may yield less fruit than Pyongyang is hoping for. Some factions in Washington appear intent on ramping up pressure on North Korea, or at least maintaining tough sanctions until the country gives up its nuclear program. The North Korean government lashed out at these ideas over the weekend in official media, saying they would not be conducive to lasting peace. And while the White House has signaled its desire for a rapid denuclearization timeline, North Korea is pushing for a phased process that involves the periodic easing of pressure in exchange for progress toward denuclearization. Beijing could be a useful ally in this argument.
China understands that both Koreas want to diversify their economic reliance, focusing less on China and more on the United States. And right now, Beijing is interested in ensuring the continuation of the U.S.-North Korea dialogue. The alternative is simply too costly. China will therefore avoid pushing too far on critical issues that it wants North and South Korea to address in the long term, such as denuclearization or reunification. Still, the upcoming summit gives Beijing an opportunity to reshape its role and use affairs on the peninsula as leverage in the U.S.-China trade issue and in its strategic balance with the United States.