Officially, President Xi Jinping of China is visiting North Korea this week to strengthen “strategic communication and exchanges” between the two countries, as he wrote on Wednesday in a front-page op-ed for a North Korean state newspaper.

Unofficially, he is likely there to talk about--or at least send a message to--President Donald Trump.

Xi heads to Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, on Thursday for a two-day state visit with Kim Jong Un, the country’s mysterious and mercurial leader. It is the first trip by a Chinese president to North Korea in 14 years, and only the second time a world leader has met Kim on his home turf.

The visit comes as the leaders of both countries are locked in stalled disputes with the United States, and each may be looking to the other for help gaining leverage with Trump. For Xi, the meeting is a good way of reminding the American president--with whom he is entangled in a trade war and is expected to meet at the upcoming Group of 20 meeting--that China wields valuable influence over the nuclear-capable North.

Kim needs Xi’s help to get what he always wants: relief from punishing sanctions.

What to Expect From the Meeting

The meeting is likely to include all of the trappings of a state visit, with a dash of North Korean political theater.

China and North Korea are commemorating 70 years of diplomatic relations, offering their leaders a chance to recommit to a friendship that was strained by North Korea’s repeated tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles, but which has improved since Kim eased off on them at the end of 2017.

In Xi’s op-ed, he suggested that North Korea was headed in the “correct direction” by reducing weapons testing and deserved some sanctions relief. At the United Nations on Tuesday, China, accompanied by Russia, delayed a U.S. request to increase penalties on fuel imports after the North appeared to violate earlier sanctions.

If nothing else, Xi and Kim, both masters of propaganda, can be expected to use the international media attention to demonstrate to Trump that they too are proficient deal-makers. They have met four previous times, including before each of Kim’s two summit meetings with Trump. Those sessions were a reminder that whatever engagement with the West may offer, China remains North Korea’s largest trade partner and most important ally.

What should not be expected from the meeting are details.

Andrei Lankov, an expert on North Korea and director of the Korea Risk Group, said he expected Xi to push to maintain the status quo on the Korean Peninsula and look for ways he could use the North for leverage in the U.S.-China trade dispute but would not otherwise be “excessively specific.”

At Stake for Xi: A Costly Trade War

The Pyongyang visit comes as China is locked in a potentially devastating trade war with the United States and less than two weeks before Xi is expected to sit down with Trump at the Group of 20 meeting in Osaka, Japan.

In recent weeks, Trump has intensified his fight with China, raising tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese products and threatening to tax an additional $300 billion of goods if Beijing does not agree to Washington’s trade terms.

Xi’s visit to the North seems in part intended to convey that if the United States wants China’s help in reining in an often defiant North Korea, it will have to bend on trade.

“Xi Jinping wants to secure leverage before he meets Trump” this month, said Lee Seong-Hyon, an analyst at the Sejong Institute in South Korea. “He is sending a signal to Washington that China has a big role to play in achieving the denuclearization of North Korea and that the U.S. should not mistreat China.”

Talks between the United States and North Korea broke down in February after Trump, meeting with Kim in Vietnam, rejected a deal to lift sanctions in exchange for incremental steps toward denuclearization.

Given that each of Kim’s meetings with Trump has been preceded by one with Xi, some experts speculate that Xi’s visit to North Korea this week portends a third nuclear summit meeting between the U.S. and North Korean leaders. If that is true, the meeting in Pyongyang on Thursday is also a reminder to Trump that Xi has the potential to scupper any future talks between Washington and Pyongyang.

The North Korea visit also comes as Xi may be hoping to shift international news coverage away from the pro-democracy protests roiling Hong Kong, a semiautonomous Chinese territory.

China, however, has tried to play down Xi’s role as international spoiler.

“As for whether China is using President Xi’s state visit to the DPRK as some kind of ‘leverage,’ I must say, people with such an idea are just overthinking,” Lu Kang, spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said on Wednesday, using an acronym for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“I am sure you are aware that it has been over a year since China-U.S. trade friction started and the two sides began to hold consultations,” Lu added. “I don’t see why the present is any more sensitive than any time between then and now.”

At Stake for Kim: An End to Sanctions

Since coming to power in 2011, Kim has made it his mission to get his country out from under sanctions that have crippled it.

He spent his first years in power building nuclear weapons and the missiles to launch them, to come to the negotiating table from a position of strength. He has spent the years since looking for ways to trade some of his nuclear program--on his terms and timeline--for sanctions relief. And his country is certainly facing hardship: last month, U.N. agencies said that about 10 million people were facing “severe food shortages” after one of North Korea’s worst harvests in a decade.

Xi has already signaled a willingness this week to help an old, albeit recalcitrant, ally.

The Chinese effectively stopped the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday from declaring that the North had breached its annual limit for importing petroleum products, sparing the country from further punishment.

And in his Wednesday op-ed, published in the North’s main newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, Xi called Kim’s demands in his negotiations with Washington “reasonable.”

Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said Kim was not above flattering Xi, his principal benefactor, if it meant getting something in return.

“By inviting Xi Jinping, Kim Jong Un is giving Xi a chance to play and flaunt a mediator’s role on the Korean Peninsula,” Yang said. “In return, North Korea is expecting food aid from China.”


Choe Sang-Hun contributed reporting from Seoul, South Korea.

(June 19, 2019)