President Donald Trump continues to tout the success of his North Korea summit last week — but it’s Kim Jong Un who’s taking the real victory lap.
On Tuesday morning, the North Korean leader made his third trip to China in as many months to meet with President Xi Jinping. Xi used the opportunity to praise Kim and say that the summit was an “important step toward the political solution of the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue.”
And just the night before, the Pentagon announced that it would cancel a key military exercise with South Korea in August. That’s a big deal since that’s a significant concession the North Koreans have wanted for a long time. After all, they see these exercises as prep for an invasion and have protested against them every time they occur.
So it seems that the relationship between Washington and Seoul took a slight hit while Beijing-Pyongyang ties got a little stronger.
Experts think they know why Kim made the trip. “The most immediate reason Kim is visiting China is to share his impressions of the summit with President Xi,” Abigail Grace, who formerly worked on North Korea issues in Trump’s National Security Council, tells me. “At a time when friction is rising in the US-China relationship, Kim knows it will be easier for him to convince Xi that his proposed, phased approach is preferable to the US-drafted road map. This will reduce US negotiating leverage when they push Kim to take meaningful steps toward real denuclearization.”
Kim likely wants to get China’s approval before he takes any real steps to dismantle his nuclear program. China is North Korea’s most important trading partner and ally. The Kim regime has stayed in power in part because of Beijing’s help. So if China doesn’t consent on just how Kim might curb his nuclear program, it’ll be much harder for Kim to do that.
But that’s not all: “Xi wants Kim to start China-like economic reforms,” says Oriana Skylar Mastro, a China expert at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, “so they will probably spend much of their time together discussing that.”
China had great success pulling around 800 million out of poverty by making some market-based reforms in 1978, according to the World Bank. If any country can help Pyongyang improve its economy, then, it’s Beijing.