North Korean leader Kim Jong Un addresses the conference of cell chairpersons of the ruling party in Pyongyang. (Source: PTI)

Kim's Latest China Trip Shows U.S. Pressure Easing After Summit

(Bloomberg) -- Kim Jong Un visited China on the same day the Pentagon officially suspended a key military exercise with South Korea, two moves underscoring the North Korean leader’s success in rolling back the U.S.-led “maximum pressure” campaign against his regime.

Kim was expected to begin a two-day visit to Beijing on Tuesday, China’s official Xinhua News Agency said, the North Korean leader’s third trip to the country since March. While neither Chinese nor North Korean state media explained the visit, Kim would likely confer with Chinese President Xi Jinping about his landmark summit with U.S. President Donald Trump last week in Singapore.

Kim’s visit to neighboring China -- announced amid reports he’d landed -- illustrates how comfortable the once-reclusive leader has become traveling abroad since Trump agreed to the meeting. When Kim made his first trip overseas later in March, he traveled in secret via armored train and it wasn’t announced until he was safely home.

Trump promised Kim unspecified “security guarantees” in their joint statement after the Singapore meeting, which has been criticized for failing to secure North Korea’s commitment to a disarmament plan. Trump separately announced that he had decided to halt military exercises with South Korea, describing the “war games” as too costly and “provocative” -- a frequent North Korean criticism of the drills.

Xi holds a unique combination of carrots and sticks that could make or break talks between Trump and Kim. China supplies more than 80 percent of North Korea’s imports and its donation of the Air China Ltd. jet that carried Kim to Singapore last week highlighted the country’s role in assuring his security.

“Kim is reaching out to traditional friends and rivals and it really complicates the U.S. position of maximizing pressure on North Korea,” said Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo. “As long as we have diplomacy, the rational for war games and American troops in South Korea becomes more and more diluted.”

Commando Raid

There are already signs of disagreement between the two sides of the pace and sequence of North Korea’s disarmament and sanctions relief. Trump and his point man for talks, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said Kim could only see penalties relaxed after he “completely denuclearized,” while North Korean state media said the U.S. president had agreed to a “step-by-step” process.

The U.S. and South Korea announced Tuesday morning, Seoul time, that the allies had agreed to indefinitely delay their Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises planned for late August and early September. Pentagon spokesman Dana White said that the two sides were still coordinating and that no other joint exercises would be affected by the move for now.

The annual drills trace their origin back to Ulchi Exercises started in 1968 after a failed raid on the South Korean presidential palace by North Korean commandos. Although the allies describe them as defensive and intended to improve coordination, North Korea last year called them “reckless saber-rattling” that risked sparking an accidental war.

The freeze fits with China’s push for a “suspension-for-suspension” process, in which each side would build trust through a series of diplomatic and military gestures. China last week called on the United Nations Security Council to revisit sanctions against the regime.

In the run-up to the Singapore summit, Kim visited China twice to meet with Xi. During their March meeting in Beijing, Xi told Kim that China had made a “strategic choice” to have friendly ties with North Korea, and that they would “remain unchanged under any circumstances.”

“Now the ball is back in the North’s court,” said Shin Beomchul, director at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies’ center for security and unification. “If it responds with sincere denuclearization steps, more planned drills will be suspended, which eventually can be led to discussions to reduce U.S. forces in South Korea.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.