In Stratfor's 2019 Annual Forecast, we laid out the thorny issues that the United States and North Korea will need to tackle going into 2019 — and the importance of China's advocacy on North Korea's behalf. With his trip to China to start the year, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is emphasizing Sino-North Korean ties and possibly setting the stage for an announcement of his next summit with U.S. President Donald Trump.
Mirroring 2018, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is making his first foreign visit of 2019 to China. Chinese officials confirmed the trip on Jan. 8, the morning after reports surfaced of a mysterious train crossing North Korea's border with China under tight security. Made on the invitation of President Xi Jinping, Kim's trip is set to last four days and will be his fourth-ever to China, all within the past year. Kim is accompanied both by his wife and sister and by a high-level delegation that includes lead nuclear negotiator Kim Yong Chol, Defense Minister No Kwang Chol and Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho.
Why It Matters
China is a key North Korean partner, and Pyongyang kept Beijing apprised at every step of its 2018 diplomatic opening. Kim's first-ever state visit was to China in preparation for last April's inter-Korean summit. He also visited before and after his landmark June summit with U.S. President Donald Trump.
Given the patterns of 2018 and the critical nature of the Chinese relationship with North Korea, it is likely that Kim is relaying to Xi the details of his next summit with Trump as well as the concessions and demands North Korea might put on the table as the two leaders discuss the country's nuclear program and other issues. However, Kim's China visit does not necessarily mean the next U.S.-North Korea sit-down is a certainty. As in 2018, North Korea will seek China's backing to strengthen its negotiating position with the United States at every step. Both Trump and Kim have said they are willing to meet at any time, and discussions about the timing and venue of their next get-together are underway. However, neither side wants to hold a summit without some possibility of tangible progress. Both sides have been publicly pushing the other to make concessions, with North Korea calling for U.S. "corresponding measures," and the United States calling for tangible steps toward denuclearization.
Amid negotiations with the United States, North Korea has clamored continually for sanctions relief. Kim's visit to China is at least partly meant to shore up their economic connections in hopes of restoring as much sanctions-interrupted trade between them as possible. North Korean state media, official statements and even Kim's New Year address have all emphasized the country's top priority of easing the U.S.-led maximum pressure front. Despite North Korean warnings that a failure to roll back sanctions could mean the end of the diplomatic process, Washington has remained firm, at least publicly, that sanctions will remain in place until substantial denuclearization by North Korea.
This makes Chinese trade — and Beijing's voice at the United Nations — all the more critical. Kim's address focused overwhelmingly on the economy, and estimates indicate the North Korean economy has gone into recession under sanctions. In 2017, China made up 80 percent of North Korea's overall trade. According to Chinese customs data released in December, the two-way trade totaled $2.2 billion in the first 11 months of 2018. But trade with China also appears to be suffering given China's compliance with international sanctions. In fact, China's $2.2 billion in 2018 trade represents a nearly 53 percent drop compared with 2017. Most importantly, North Korean exports to China dropped nearly 90 percent in that time — a major blow to its nascent export-oriented low-end manufacturing sector. As such, Kim's visit will likely feature visits to Chinese economic zones, discussions of new technology and maybe negotiations on cooperation in their shared border zone.