China and the World, Talking Point

The Kim Jong-un Express

Say what you like about him but Kim Jong-un certainly has his mercurial moments


Time to say goodbye: Kim Jong-un waves as his “special green train” leaves China’s border city Dandong

Such is his distrust of all things South Korean that even its pop music – or K-pop in everyday parlance – is forbidden.

Kim Jong-un’s subjects risk imprisonment if they are caught playing it and Seoul has made a point of blasting K-pop over the contested border, knowing that the tunes will be taken as a sign of disrespect.

Yet last Sunday the North Korean leader was guest of honour at a special performance of South Korean pop stars, clapping enthusiastically as they strutted their stuff in Pyongyang. A girl band called Red Velvet seems to have caught his eye with songs including Bad Boy (opening lyric: ‘Who dat who dat who dat boy, I see your nonchalant expression’), and Kim professed himself “deeply moved” by the whole experience.

The concert was part of a busy few weeks as he prepares for a rare summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in later this month, and an unprecedented meeting with US President Donald Trump that could happen in May.

It also comes a week after Kim sprung another surprise with an unannounced four-day trip to Beijing. As deftly choreographed as his K-pop experience, the visit will have a far greater bearing on the prospects for peace on the Korean Peninsula, and the likely longevity of Kim’s leadership.

Why the visit?

Kim’s appearance in Beijing was unexpected but hardly unprecedented in family terms. His father made a number of similar journeys, including a ‘surprise trip’ of his own shortly before a first-ever summit with his South Korean counterpart 18 years ago.

In another case of history repeating itself, Kim junior arrived in a bulletproof train that crawled so slowly through northeastern China that a distinctive olive green train with a yellow stripe was soon spotted by the locals, who speculated that “Fatty Kim the Third” – as he is nicknamed by some Chinese netizens – was on board.

Local high-speed trains were delayed to make way for Kim’s procession of armoured boxcars – with security reaching fever pitch at the stations along the route.

The visit wasn’t confirmed by the Chinese until Kim had returned safely to his home country. But the brief stay was significant as his first known excursion from North Korea since he assumed power and the first time that he had met Xi Jinping personally, despite the close historical ties between the two nations.

Donald Trump was quick to claim credit for the rendezvous, intimating that pressure from the White House has been bringing the renegade leader to heel. “Look forward to our meeting!” he tweeted, putting himself back into the limelight, before adding: “In the meantime, and unfortunately, maximum sanctions and pressure must be maintained at all cost!”

Supporters of the economic sanctions say that the Chinese have to make life more difficult for Kim, and the Financial Times reported last weekend that the restrictions are really starting to bite, with shipments of petrol, coal and steel falling to a fraction of their normal levels in the first two months of the year.

That may have forced Kim to review his relationship with his neighbour to the north, although others have read his travel plans differently, seeing them more as a sign of confidence that he could spend time away from home and that his negotiating position is stronger after the progress of his nuclear testing programme.

Most likely it was a combination of factors that fuelled the decision to travel to Beijing. “They’ve probably reached a point in their weapons programme where they feel a pause is fine. They don’t need to test, and they could still advance and progress without these big demonstrations,” Victor Cha, a former director for Asian affairs with the National Security Council, told Evan Osnos in a piece in the New Yorker last week. “But the other piece of it is, I think, they’re feeling a lot of pressure from the sanctions. The last UN Security Council resolution basically sanctioned a hundred per cent of North Korea’s external trade. So this is unprecedented. And then the other thing is, I think, they are worried that the US might do something crazy. I think they are genuinely worried about that.”

Friends reunited, at last

Diplomatic relations between Beijing and Pyongyang have been difficult for years. Shortly after taking power in 2011 Kim executed his uncle, who was the point person for North Korea’s economic relationship with the Chinese, and he infuriated them further with his missile programme, despite repeated warnings not to test weapons.

Some of the weapons trials even seem to have been scheduled to create maximum embarrassment, including a missile launch during a conference with the BRICS nations that Xi hosted in Xiamen last September (see WiC379).

What followed was a ratcheting up of restrictions on cross-border trade that have sometimes been lambasted as too limited by China’s critics (see WiC355) but proved damaging enough to enrage the renegade regime (see WiC319).

Virtually all of North Korea’s foreign trade is conducted with China, much of it in food and fuel imports, but diplomatic relations had descended into deep-freeze, with a dwindling in meetings between the two governments.

Data from the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies shows just seven high-level visits (including Kim’s trip) over the past six years, compared to 54 under Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao (with six trips to China by Kim Jong-il and one by Hu to North Korea).

The mood music was different as Kim’s train made its homeward journey, however, and China’s press described the visit as proving the doubters wrong on the deterioration in ties.

“With the DPRK leader due to have summits with the leaders of the Republic of Korea and the United States in the next two months, it is only natural that Xi and Kim should want to compare notes,” the China Daily celebrated in an editorial that highlighted how China’s ties with North Korea were never going to be bested.

“Suggestions that Beijing had been sidelined by Pyongyang’s approaches to Seoul and Washington were always unfounded given the two countries’ long-standing friendship, which was forged in the crucible of war,” it insisted.

Reports of a more humble guest?

Despite the détente, there was disagreement about which of the two men had made the first move in asking for a meeting. China’s newspapers reported that Kim came to Beijing after an invitation from Xi, but Pyongyang’s press saw things differently, claiming that Kim had first suggested the visit.

There were further differences in the way that the trip was reported. State television in China flashed up footage of the North Korean leader taking studious notes as Xi spoke, which made for a striking contrast to the expert advice that Kim dispenses to his countrymen on a daily basis. Maybe that was why his media elected not to show him hard at work with pen and paper, choosing images of Xi toasting his guest instead (Kim was treated to a very rare edition of Moutai, which cost nearly $200,000 per bottle).

Mysteriously, none of the same photos saw the light of day in the Chinese media, however, with Xinhua more focused on remarks from Kim that it was “his obligation to come to congratulate Xi in person” following his re-election as Chinese president. Kim also wanted to keep the Chinese up to date with his thinking on events on the Korean Peninsula “out of comradeship and moral responsibility”, Xinhua reported.

Although the visit was termed “unofficial”, Kim was given a welcoming ceremony with a full honour guard in the Great Hall of the People, a formal meeting and a welcoming banquet: a lunch between the two leaders and their wives, and an evening performance of songs and dances.

“We speak highly of this visit,” Xi explained to his guest.

All the same, there was a hint of frustration at Kim’s previous disobedience. “Sharing common ideals and beliefs as well as profound revolutionary friendship, the elder generations of leaders of the two countries trusted and supported each other, and wrote a fine story in the history of international relations,” Xi added, in what looked like a thinly veiled reference to Kim’s inexperience relative to his host.

What did Kim want from the meeting with Xi?

The priority was signalling that relations with the Chinese aren’t quite as strained as many had thought. Now that Kim has been seen to pay proper tribute to Xi, analysts will also scrutinise whether Beijing might back off from the “maximum pressure” demanded by Trump on sanctions against Pyongyang’s pariah government. How, for instance, does the Chinese promise to “push the relations between the two parties and the two countries to a new high in a new historical phase” square with Washington’s efforts to squeeze the life out of the North Koreans diplomatically and economically?

Kim may also be anticipating that the arrival of John Bolton as Trump’s new national security advisor (described by North Korean newspapers as far back as 2003 as “human scum and a bloodsucker”) is going to make it harder to find common ground in any negotiating round.

But at the very least, the rapprochement with the Chinese gives him more room for manoeuvre as he heads into a summit with Trump. “The more options North Korea has, the less isolated North Korea is, the less able the US will be to coerce North Korea in any direction,” Yun Sun, the director of the China Programme at the Stimson Center in Washington, told The Atlantic last week.

And what do the Chinese want to happen next?

Kim’s visit is a timely reminder that China is the central player in any solution to the crisis on the Korean Peninsula. Even if Beijing was wrong-footed by Trump’s shock agreement to face-to-face talks with Kim last month, the Chinese have regained most of their poise with his visit. Tellingly, they also took the decision not to inform Washington ahead of time. Perhaps this was payback for Xi hearing about Trump’s readiness to meet Kim only after he had announced it publicly.

More broadly, the Chinese seem cautious about Kim conducting bilateral meetings (other than with Beijing), preferring multilateral talks that give them a seat at the table while any deal is discussed. In fact, they have been trying to drum up support for the renewal of the Six-Party Talks for years and Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang returned to the theme after Kim’s visit, calling for dialogue to be resumed at an early date.

Talks broke down in 2009 when the North Koreans walked out of the negotiations and Washington is reluctant to give them another go until Pyongyang meets earlier commitments to dismantle its nuclear programme.

The Chinese approach is likely to be different in pushing for concessions as part of a longer, drawn-out process that might prove more acceptable to Pyongyang. Like Kim, they will want to define denuclearisation as part of a broader plan that includes a pullback of American military commitments in South Korea.

In the meantime the attention switches back to Trump, who reacted to the news of the Beijing visit with a tweet that the prospects for denuclearisation have increased from “not even a small possibility” to a “good chance”.

When and where Kim’s summit with Trump could take place is open to question. But if the rumours are true that a neutral location in Europe like Sweden or Switzerland could host the talks, his train had better leave soon.

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