Multiple media houses are reporting that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has made a secret visit to China. The visit comes just weeks after it was announced that US President Donald Trump has agreed to meet with the North Korean leader.
China is considered the most powerful ally for North Korea. It is North Korea’s largest trade partner. Trade with China represents 57% of North Korea’s imports and 42% of its exports. The country has tried to maintain a diplomatic stance between the US and North Korea. It has urged the US not to conduct military exercises with South Korea and has implored North Korea to stop testing missiles. It has also approved of the UN sanctions against North Korea that have been repeatedly imposed this year. In February 2017, China announced that it will be suspending all imports of coal from North Korea until the end of 2017. Coal is North Korea’s most vital export commodity.
The North Korean nuclear program has been a source of concern for the US and the international community for decades. North Korea has remained an isolated nation for decades. Its nuclear program has especially been a concern for the international community. In 2017, North Korea launched 23 missiles in the span of 16 tests.
In March 2018, a South Korean delegation headed to North Korea to partake in historic talks to ease the tensions that have built up in the Korean peninsula. These talks eventually resulted in US President Donald Trump agreeing to meet with Kim Jong Un. South Korea's President Moon Jae-in said the news "came like a miracle". "If President Trump and Chairman Kim meet following an inter-Korean summit, complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula will be put on the right track in earnest," he said.
Ties between North Korea and South Korea have improved exponentially in recent months.
In the meantime, ties between North Korea and China have been tense in recent years. China has supported many of the harsh sanctions imposed by the UN in response to North Korea’s nuclear activities.
China shares a border with North Korea. There are growing fears within China that North Korea could turn on the nation and become hostile. This would present a clear threat to its security and would destabilize the region further. “The Chinese side is very worried that if North Korea gets word it might turn them into a hostile neighbor,” said Frank Aum, a former Pentagon adviser on North Korea.
According to multiple corroborating media reports, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is presently in Beijing to conduct a secret official visit. This is the first trip to Beijing undertaken by Kim Jong Un since he came into power in 2011.
A report from CNN noted, “Rumors about the arrival of high-level North Korean official began swirling late Monday, when images of what appears to be a train that belongs to North Korea's ruling Kim family surfaced online. A large security presence outside the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, where North Korean leaders have previously stayed, reinforced speculation that a member of the Kim family had travelled to China.”
The SCMP has since confirmed although both China and North Korea have neither confirmed nor denied the speculation. “We cannot confirm those reports. We do not know if they were necessarily true,” White House spokesman Raj Shah told a press briefing.
Andrew Hammond, an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics, wrote about the meaning behind this alleged visit in an oped for SCMP. He wrote, “Taken overall, the unconfirmed visit underlines that the geopolitical plates are moving on the Korean peninsula. While change is in the air, Xi will warn Kim to show prudence, because if the North-South dialogue proves a mirage, Trump may increase pressure on Pyongyang again.”
Our assessment is that China continues to be wary regarding the US military presence in South Korea. As we had reported earlier, the Chinese would want the US out of the region as quid pro quo for any phased denuclearization of North Korea. We also feel that there could be an arbitrage between the imposition of sanctions by the US and the peace talks with Kim Jong Un. China has a mutual defence treaty with North Korea and it is likely that Kim Jong Un is seeking some assurance as he heads towards the anticipated meeting with Trump.