- Amid a diplomatic outreach between North Korea and other regional powers, the arrival of a North Korean train in the Chinese capital signals that Beijing is probably preparing to reach out to Pyongyang itself — perhaps through a meeting with Kim Jong Un.
- Ahead of its likely summits with the United States and South Korea, North Korea may try to use its position of strength to gain more equal footing with China in their relationship.
- Because any lasting diplomatic solution to the North Korean crisis will have to include China, Pyongyang will not be able to sideline Beijing entirely in its negotiations.
As the United States and South Korea try to thaw their relationships with North Korea, signs of what may be a secretive rendezvous between North Korean and Chinese officials suggest that Beijing might be trying to set up its own direct line of diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang. Japan's Nippon News Network has obtained video of a train — the kind North Korean leaders typically use, and one similar to the train former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il rode to visit the Chinese capital in 2011 — arriving in Beijing on the afternoon of March 26. According to News24, the railway in question is under heavy security and armed police are stationed around it. The report supports a claim the China-based Duowei News made, citing unnamed sources, that Kim Jong Un would arrive in Beijing on March 26. Duowei News also cited South Korean media that said Chinese police had blocked off the North Korean border city of Dandong earlier in the day and had prevented people from approaching the Yalu River Bridge.
It's still unclear whether Kim Jong Un is, in fact, visiting China. The train's arrival could simply be part of a security check by Chinese officials preparing for a visit, or it could be ferrying other high-ranking North Korean officials to the city. Either way, it indicates that China is probably preparing to engage with North Korea at a highly sensitive time for the Korean Peninsula — and for China's role within it.
In our 2018 Second-Quarter Forecast, we noted that the detente between North and South would take center stage in the crisis on the Korean Peninsula. As the United States reaches out to Pyongyang as well, China, too, will pursue its own diplomatic back channels with North Korea.
China has long had great influence over ties between the North and South. But lately that position seems to have eroded. The Koreas are scheduled to hold their own talks in April, U.S. President Donald Trump could meet with Kim Jong Un before May, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe might hold a similar visit with the North Korean leader — all without Beijing present.
Of course, these talks aren't all bad from China's perspective. China welcomes them to the extent that they could defuse tension on its doorstep and ease the pressure the United States has brought to bear against Beijing because of Pyongyang's behavior. Because the United States ratcheted up its military threats against North Korea and urged China to comply with a new sanctions regime, Beijing found itself caught between a rock and a hard place: It faced either military conflict or significant economic strain — both of which could lead to instability on its border. Beijing tried to convince Washington and Pyongyang to adopt a "dual-freeze" solution, whereby North Korea would suspend its nuclear and missile development and the United States would pause its military exercises with the South. That effort failed, as did China's attempt to talk with North Korea itself. So Beijing switched tactics and repeatedly called for Washington to negotiate Pyongyang one on one. But now that those talks may actually take place, China has tried to reinsert itself in the conversation to make sure that its own interests aren't neglected.
If the recent reports are true, Kim may be trying to use his newfound leverage to shape North Korea's relationship with China in his favor. Having already lined up meetings with the South, the United States and possibly Japan, Kim has shown his ability to come to the negotiating table — without China's help — as an equal party rather than a dependent. Yet whatever his long-term plans, he may not be able to completely shut out Beijing. Despite Pyongyang's eagerness to decrease its reliance on Beijing and its displeasure with China's participation in the sanctions against it, Kim will need China's support if he aims to strike a permanent peace deal beyond the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953. (The deal's three signatories are North Korea, the United States and China.)
Even with a diplomatic solution, North Korea can't easily abandon its pursuit of a nuclear deterrent — at least, not right away. But it may be more open to making clear demonstrations of its commitment to set the controversial program aside. For instance, Pyongyang shuttered a nuclear reactor in Yongbyon in 2007 and demolished a cooling tower in 2008 as a result of the six-party talks about its nuclear program. So although the tentative diplomatic efforts of all sides in the crisis may not pan out, Kim's visit to China — if confirmed — would mean that North Korea is getting serious about reshaping its relationships and position within the international community.
Editor's Note: Since this article published, Bloomberg sources have confirmed Kim Jong Un's visit to China.