In the wake of his meeting with President Donald Trump, North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un flew to China to meet with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. This marked his third meeting with Xi, two of them before the summit. This third meeting points to a remarkably accelerated tempo and a radically increased number of meetings between the two Asian leaders. Kim had not met with Xi even once in the previous five years of Xi’s leadership. In short, Kim Jong-un’s personal interactions with the Chinese leader have all occurred under the shadow of Kim’s meetings with Trump.
Much of the American focus has been on the United States, and especially Trump’s performance. A great deal of ink and many electrons are now being expended in assessing what it all means. Did Trump get a good deal or a raw deal? Should he have offered to suspend military exercises, or was that giving away too much? What are the prospects for “complete, verifiable, and irreversible” denuclearization of North Korea?
To a lesser extent, analysts have also discussed what North Korea may have gotten from the summit. But even there, much of it is couched in terms of the United States and Trump. Did Kim pull one over on Trump? Did he gain simply by being seen on the same stage, by having a meeting, by shaking hands with the American president? What is less clear is what goals North Korea might have had, apart from its interaction with the United States.
Given the opacity of the North Korean regime, there is no real way to assess the summit in North Korean terms. Outside observers can only speculate on what North Korean aims might have been — and without knowledge of that, it is impossible to measure how many of those aims were achieved.
What is known, however, is that North Korea’s leadership wanted the meeting to happen. Even before the summit, the North Koreans had made certain conciliatory gestures, such as the release of American prisoners. When Trump abruptly cancelled the summit on May 24, it appears North Korea sought to change his mind. North Korea also demolished its nuclear test site and decommissioned a missile test stand in advance of the summit, possibly to signal its desire for the summit to continue. There is no evidence that past U.S.-North Korean meetings, such as those attending the 1994 Agreed Framework, the visits by U.S. State Department officials in 2000, or the Six Party talks in the early 2000s had elicited such gestures.
Simply having a summit with the president of the United States marks a significant change for North Korea. This is, after all, an unprecedented event in the history of the two nations. And a joint communique did result, although one which in which “each of the four main points was in previous documents with NK, some in a stronger, more encompassing way.”
Kim Jong-un as Richard Nixon?
What if the focal point of the summit was not Trump or the United States? More to the point, what if the North Koreans’ intended audience was not the United States at all? What if North Korea wanted to use the summit to sway a different audience? In particular, there is some reason to at least consider the possibility that Pyongyang pursued the summit in order to signal Beijing, rather than Washington or Seoul.
North Korea has long been dependent upon China for its energy and food needs. But while China has been willing to provide both, it has kept North Korea on a short leash. China has provided only sufficient fuel (and presumably food) to keep the Kim regime and economy on life support. The famous image of night-time northeast Asia, where North Korea is largely dark, is indicative of the limited degree of Chinese aid to North Korea. China has chosen not to provide North Korea with electricity. Even North Korean soldiers seem to be riddled with parasites, suggesting the country’s population is not enjoying munificent Chinese food aid. It is unlikely that Pyongyang is especially appreciative of Beijing’s limited assistance.
In the past, North Korea has had few options to alter its circumstances. It has been palpably hostile towards South Korea. The list of aggressive actions by the North is long and well known, including assassinating the South Korean cabinet and sinking South Korean warships on the high seas. It has viewed Washington as the main supporter of Seoul, as well as the main reason it failed to unify the country during the Korean War.
While Pyongyang could, and did, play Moscow against Beijing during the Cold War (while remaining free of entanglement with either), the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that Russia has been unable to compete with China for influence over Korea. And history dictates that no Korean leader would ever make an overture to Japan.
So, for the North Korean leadership, it has had few options for altering its circumstances. Until now.
The first major shift was the rise of Moon Jae-in in South Korea. President Moon comes from the portion of the South Korean polity that included Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, both far more liberal than Moon’s immediate predecessor Park Geun-hye. The so-called “386” generation has long believed that a rapprochement with North Korea was not only desirable, but possible. To this end, Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun held summits with Kim Jong-il (Kim Jong-un’s father), in the hopes of heralding a new era in North-South relations. Moon himself only rose due to the unique circumstance of the fall of Park.
The second shift is the growing Russian effort to play a role in Korean affairs. Over the past several years, Russian president Vladimir Putin has expanded his country’s interactions with North Korea. Russia has forgiven a portion of North Korea’s debt (which would probably never have been repaid in any case). More significantly, it has provided a fiber optic link, allowing North Korea to access the Internet without having to rely on Chinese telecom providers. Russia has also proposed building a second bridge along its 11-mile border with North Korea, to supplement the current rail bridge linking the two countries. Putin has also warned the United States about conducting military exercises in South Korea.
The third shift is the election of Donald Trump. Whatever one’s view of the American president, it is clear that he is neither beholden to, nor a subscriber to, the traditional foreign policy consensus. He is willing to adopt positions at odds with the traditional Washington establishment, both in terms of policy and in terms of process. It is highly unlikely that any other president would have responded with the alacrity the Trump did to an invitation to meet with the North Korean leader.
In short, North Korea now enjoys more links with more parties than it has had since its founding. Kim Jong-un therefore has the unprecedented opportunity to play other potential partners against China. For a nation that has long been the cockpit of international competition, from the age of colonialism (involving the Russian, Chinese, and Japanese empires) to the Cold War (Soviet and Chinese competition), to the post-Cold War period (when North Korea had only China providing any support), this is a very different strategic situation. More to the point, for Kim Jong-un, it is an opportunity to gain negotiating space with Beijing.
As the only source of aid and the largest source of trade, China has always had the ability to cripple North Korea. While Beijing has little interest in a North Korean collapse (and the likely attendant refugee crisis), it has recently demonstrated a willingness to increase pressure. In particular, American sanctions on North Korean and Chinese financial institutions appear to have borne fruit, with North Korea’s ability to employ Chinese channels increasingly curtailed. For Pyongyang, the implication is dire. Beijing is, at best, a fair weather friend in the face of American pressure.
For Kim Jong-un, then, the potential ability to reshape and reform its relationship with the United States has two benefits. If possible, he could obtain resources from the United States (and indirectly, gain U.S. permission for South Korea and Western states to trade and invest in North Korea). But the more important, arguably, is to compel Beijing to take North Korea seriously. Much as Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1971 altered the triangular relationship among the United States, China, and the Soviet Union, then, might Kim Jong-un’s visit be an attempt to alter North Korea’s relationship with Beijing, by playing an “America card”?
By raising the possibility of an independent relationship between Pyongyang and Washington, Kim Jong-un may be signaling that he need not be beholden to Beijing. If China does not provide more aid and assistance to North Korea, then Pyongyang may chart a wholly separate path, one that might even involve a reformed relationship with the United States.
It is important to emphasize that this is not a prediction. The greater likelihood is that North Korea’s goals for the summit were primarily to loosen the array of sanctions that are currently imposed, by appealing to Trump’s ego. Facilitating South Korean investment is a far more likely objective than reforming Chinese ties.
But amidst all the discussion of the summit, it would be useful to consider the North Korean perspective, and recognize that the intended audience and associated goals may not have been entirely America- centric.
This piece originally appeared in War on the Rocks