The Real Agenda of Xi Jinping’s First Trip to North Korea

Commentary
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38 North

The Real Agenda of Xi Jinping’s First Trip to North Korea

After many years of speculation about a visit to the DPRK by Chinese President Xi Jinping, the suspense finally came to an end last week with the Chinese leader’s two-day state visit to Pyongyang. The timing is curious. The trip happened at the peak of the US-China trade war and one week before what is expected to be a showdown over trade between Xi and President Trump during the G20 Summit in Osaka. The first reaction to the trip when it was announced was, therefore, understandable: Beijing would use it to leverage Pyongyang in its trade war with Washington. But judging from Chinese statements during and after the trip, Xi’s agenda went beyond whatever immediate tactical gains he hoped to achieve on the trade issue. In fact, Xi’s primary goals were to use his visit to restore China’s pivotal role in negotiations over North Korea’s denuclearization and peace and security arrangements on the Korean Peninsula and to stabilize the increasingly turbulent US-China relationship.

The “linkage” between North Korea and trade was first made by President Trump in 2017. Although Trump launched the trade war a year later despite China’s cooperation on the North Korea sanctions, the Chinese side nevertheless categorized the US-China cooperation on this issue as a sterling example of the great cooperation between the two countries and their leaders. (高层引领大国合作) . Despite the escalation of the trade war since the summer of 2018, China did not try to play the North Korea card in its negotiations with the US. China cannot dictate North Korea’s behavior or push it to engage in provocative behavior when the North is seeking reconciliation, and Chinese open violation of UN sanction resolutions would solicit further American retaliation on trade. Most importantly, at a time when Beijing’s top priority was resolution of the trade war, why complicate these negotiations by injecting Chinese support for North Korea into the equation?

This article was originally published on June 25, 2019 by 38 North. Read the full article here.