A surprise visit by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to China may indicate Pyongyang’s need for support from its closest ally ahead of upcoming summits with South Korea and the US. Observers say it would be highly unusual for Kim to meet US President Donald Trump without seeing Chinese President Xi Jinping first. China is North Korea’s number one trading and economic partner, and is Pyongyang’s only major military ally.
Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in are due to meet next month, and a proposed meeting with Trump is due to take place by May.
Since North and South Korea reopened diplomatic ties in February, Pyongyang has been pushing for a Korean solution to the ongoing crisis on the peninsula, which analysts say is a way of driving a wedge between Seoul and Washington.
But recent moves have also left China, North Korea’s most important ally, somewhat marginalized.
The two countries have been allies since the Korean War, when Mao Zedong sent troops to support Kim’s grandfather Kim Il Sung, and still maintain a mutual defense treaty, under which they pledge to “immediately render military and other assistance by all means at its disposal” in the event of war or foreign attack.
Since Kim Jong Un took power in 2011 however, the relationship has become increasingly strained. Kim purged several key officials with close ties to Beijing, including his uncle, Jang Song Thaek. He also angered China by pursuing missile and nuclear testing against Beijing’s stated goal of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.
“The North Korean Chinese relationship has not been very good in recent years, particularly over China’s acceptance of international sanctions and degree of implementing them,” said James Hoare, an associate fellow at Chatham House and former UK diplomat in North Korea. “These will be subjects the North Koreans are keen to talk about.”
“China would like to be seen as the ultimate peacemaker in the region,” said Adam Cathcart, an expert on Sino-Korean relations at the University of Leeds.
Tong Zhao, a North Korea expert at the Carnegie Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, adds, “A stable and positive relationship with China would prevent the US from launching a military strike.”