North Korean leader Kim Jong Un arrives at Changi Airport in Singapore on June 10, 2018. (Photographer: Terence Tan/Ministry of Communications and Information of Singapore via Bloomberg)

North Korea's Kim Visits China in Push Against Trump Sanctions

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Kim Jong Un is making his fourth visit to China, in a sign that the North Korean leader is seeking Chinese President Xi Jinping’s counsel ahead of a possible second summit with Donald Trump.

Kim left Pyongyang Monday for a visit slated to end Thursday, North Korean and Chinese state media reported. Kim was invited by Xi and accompanied by his wife Ri Sol Ju and several top officials on his train journey across the border, the state-run Korean Central News Agency said.

North Korea's Kim Visits China in Push Against Trump Sanctions

Xi and Kim met for an hour and began a dinner before 7 p.m. local time, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported, without citing anyone. It was Kim’s 35th birthday, according to South Korea’s Unification Ministry, although the date hasn’t been confirmed by Pyongyang.

The trip -- Kim’s fourth to China since March -- suggests negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear arsenal are gaining momentum after months without high-level diplomatic exchanges. Trump is seeking a second summit with Kim to reenergize talks that have made little headway since their first meeting in June, saying Sunday a date would be announced “in the not-too-distant future.”

Kim could be looking to leverage his relationship with Xi, who Trump has accused of relaxing pressure on North Korea, to push the U.S. to make concessions in nuclear talks. The North Korean leader said in his New Year’s address that he might take a “new path” in negotiations if Trump didn’t ease trade, travel and investment restrictions.

“For China, North Korea is something that it cannot give up, if it wants to maintain its leverage on the Korean Peninsula,” said Lee Sang-sook, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy. “But for North Korea, China is its strongest foothold when it pushes forth with its campaign to lift sanctions.”

Kim traveled to China -- his most important security and trade partner -- before meetings last year with Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Trump complained after a similar China trip in May that Xi might have emboldened Kim to take a harder line before their own eventual meeting in Singapore.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a regular news briefing Tuesday that China had no reason to use North Korea as a bargaining chip in U.S. trade talks occurring elsewhere in Beijing. “China and the DPRK are friendly and close neighbors and it is also an important tradition for us to maintain friendly exchanges,” Lu said, referring to North Korea’s formal name.

China and Russia, who both wield vetoes on the United Nations Security Council, have called for easing sanctions to reward Kim’s move last year to halt weapons tests and dismantle some testing facilities. While there have been reports of easier inspections at the North Korean border, China has denied Trump’s claims that its relaxing pressure on the regime.

Moon’s office said Tuesday that it considered Kim’s visit a “positive development of many situations.” “We are aware of the fact that Kim is visiting China, and we are closely monitoring the situation,” Moon’s office said.

South Korea’s National Intelligence Service told lawmakers in Seoul that Kim and Xi might discuss a process for replacing the cease-fire that ended the Korean War with a formal peace treaty, Yonhap reported, citing unidentified officials.

North Korea's Kim Visits China in Push Against Trump Sanctions

In keeping with Kim’s efforts to normalize diplomacy involving his reclusive nation, it was notable that both Chinese and North Korean media announced his trip before his return to Pyongyang. That was also the case during Kim’s visit to South Korea in April and trips to Singapore and China in June.

Kim’s speech last week hit on themes likely to appeal to the Communist Party leadership in Beijing, who have long chafed at the American troop presence on its doorstep. The North Korean leader, for instance, called for an end to U.S.-South Korea military exercises and the deployment of American nuclear-capable ships and aircraft.

Nuclear Umbrella

“There isn’t much prospect of the U.S. removing its nuclear umbrella,” said Andrew Gilholm, director of North Asia analysis at Control Risks Group. “So, short of lending support for the removal of sanctions, it is difficult to see China playing any decisive role in the U.S.-North Korea negotiation.”

The Kim regime has also sought to avoid giving North Korea’s much larger and wealthier neighbor too much influence, preferring instead to play its neighbors against each other.

Kim has proposed greater cooperation with fellow “socialist countries” to develop North Korea’s economy, suggesting an interest in attracting Chinese investment and technological support. He was expected to continue to tradition of his father, former leader Kim Jong Il, and inspect industrial and academic sites during the four-day visit.

“Kim Jong Un’s visit to China will likely to focus policy consulting, from foreign policy to his domestic reform agenda,” said Shi Yongming, a former Chinese diplomat who’s now a research associate at the China Institute of International Studies. “He will very likely travel to other areas in China and learn from China’s experience in ‘opening up and reform.’”

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