Why Kim Jong-un went to Beijing

Kim Jong-un paid an surprise, highly secretive visit to Beijing from March 26 to 27, marking the first time the 34-year-old North Korean leader has set foot outside the Hermit Kingdom since he took power in 2011.

Chinese authorities greeted the North Korean leader with an over-the-top reception. Kim’s green bulletproof train was met at Beijing Railway Station by a presidential motorcade that proceeded through central Beijing, a city in lockdown. Although officially labeled “unofficial,” Chinese President Xi Jinping went to great lengths to plan an extravagant “state visit-plus” for his North Korean counterpart: a welcoming ceremony with a full military honor guard, a formal meeting, a state dinner with a night performance of songs and dances, and a private lunch between the two leaders and their wives.

“North Korean leader Kim Jong-un,” reported Neil Connor of the Telegraph, “was treated to the most expensive tipple in Xi Jinping’s drinks cabinet during their meeting — a L2,260 bottle of luxury 2003 vintage Kweichow Moutai which the Chinese president rarely opens for foreign guests.”

On a serious note, some analysts now see that in breaking the Korean Peninsula deadlock, all roads lead to Beijing. “By inviting the DPRK leader to Beijing,” argues Vincent Lofaso of Eurasia Review, “President Xi is bringing China center stage as the most important player on the DPRK issue… The timing of this meeting is important because it comes before Kim Jong-Un meets with South Korean President Moon Jae-In and with U.S. President Trump. In terms of U.S. involvement, President Xi made it very clear to Washington that China is a major player in dealing with the Korean Peninsula.”

The reality, however, points to a completely different picture. Despite throwing an impressive party for him, Beijing is most likely frustrated that it was forced to host Kim Jong-un in such a hasty way — North Korea’s Supreme Leader was moving at a breakneck pace before went to Beijing, with his decisions to meet South Korean President in April, American President in May, and maybe even Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in June.

It was Kim Jong-un who masterminded Beijing visit, even though the invitation came from the Chinese president. “Kim Jong-un’s surprise visit to China,” write Teddy Ng and Jeong Ho Lee of South China Morning Post, “was initiated by the reclusive North Korean leader, official media in Pyongyang has reported, contradicting suggestions that Beijing invited Kim to boost its leverage over the Korean peninsula. China was just following protocol by sending an invitation to Kim after North Korea proposed the trip, and it showed China was still of use to Pyongyang.”

“Mr. Kim’s surprise two-day visit to Beijing,” says Jane Perlez of New York Times, “was effectively a reminder of how much he has set the agenda in the crisis over his nation’s nuclear arsenal — and of what a strong hand he has going into talks, first with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and later with President Trump. Mr. Kim has yet to say what concessions he is willing to make, or what he may demand from the United States in return. But he continued to dominate the diplomatic process.”

Mr. Kim’s visit to Beijing was also “a masterstroke that softened his international image as a rogue figure,” noted Perlez, “North Korea’s young leader used his debut in Beijing as an international statesman to present himself as confident, reasonable — and willing to bargain.”

On his first international debut, Kim clearly had another priority. “Kim Jong-un,” according to Donald Kirk of South China Morning Post, “has to get North Korea out from under the onerous sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council, with China’s consent. Xi might lavish gifts on the North Koreans. Just imagine how much the North has been hurting while China abides by sanctions, curtailing the flow of oil that North Korea needs to fuel its decrepit economy and cutting off the import of North Korean coal. Having slowed the flow in conformance with sanctions, Chinese bureaucrats at Xi’s behest should suddenly be able to provide the aid, comfort and oil the North Koreans need.”

Kim Jong-un is using his hasty visit to Beijing to strengthen his hand in the upcoming talks with Presidents Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump. “Whatever the precise parameters of Kim’s motivation,” writes Evan Osnos of The New Yorker, “his China play has made it more difficult for Trump, who would have preferred that Beijing remain at odds with Pyongyang.”

Xiaoxiong Yi is director of Marietta College’s China Program.

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