North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is in Beijing this week, his fourth visit in a less than a year. The trip comes as Chinese and U.S. officials held a second day of trade talks and as Kim prepares for a second possible meeting with President Donald Trump.
Analysts say the visit is likely to be an opportunity for the two countries to discuss North Korea’s plans for another meeting with Trump. When the two met for the first time last March, they agreed to communicate more with each other about domestic and international affairs.
China’s Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un held three summits last year before and after meetings with Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
During his visit this week, which ends on Thursday, Kim will be looking for assurances that if talks with the United States fail, it will still have support from China, says Shi Yinhong, a political science professor at Beijing’s Renmin University.
“Just like his previous visits to China, he will want China to give him more economic help and continue to appeal to the U.N. Security Council to reduce sanctions against North Korea,” Shi said.
At a regular briefing on Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang had this to say when asked whether there was a connection between the visit and a possible second Trump Kim summit.
“China has always supported North Korea and the U.S. to hold talks and to reach a positive outcome,” Lu said.
Lu said China believes contact between the U.S. and North Korea is important. When asked whether North Korean officials would meet with U.S. officials during their visit, he said the delegations were at different levels.
In a New Year’s Day address Kim warned that it might take an alternative path if U.S. sanctions and pressure did not ease. But how much support Beijing is willing to give and how much influence it has over Pyongyang is still a matter of debate both outside and in China.
An optimistic report in the communist party backed nationalist tabloid the Global Times said 2019 may be a seminal year for North Korea, quoting one analyst who argued that this year could be like China’s move in 1979 to move away from isolation toward economic reform and opening up.
Analysts believe that North Korea is already moving in that direction taking small steps toward opening up its economy, but they also add that any changes that do come will come at a very slow pace.
The article said Kim arrived in Beijing seeking a breakthrough in denuclearization talks and ways to improve ties with the United States. The timing of the visit – as U.S. and Chinese officials work to hash out a trade deal - has some wondering whether Beijing is trying its hand at playing the so-called North Korea card, to use the issue as leverage.
Hu Xijin, the editor in chief at the Global Times said on Twitter Tuesday that “the timing of Kim’s China visit is clearly linked to the planned second summit between him and President Trump.”
“As to whether this is used as a bargaining chip by China in trade talks, I believe more Americans would think so than Chinese do,” the tweet went on to say. Twitter is blocked in China.
Renmin University’s Shi said there is no connection between the visit and the trade talks and that these two were unlikely to influence each other.
“But Kim Jong Un’s visit to Beijing could indirectly show President Trump that although China has maybe less economic cards, China still has some strategic and diplomatic cards,” Shi said.