Kim Jong-un and his wife have planned a birthday getaway in Beijing this week with Mr. and Mrs. Xi Jinping. Media have speculated that China might use the occasion of Kim’s visit as leverage in managing U.S.-China trade talks. Two years ago the premise underlying a convergence between Trump and Xi on North Korea at Mar-a-lago was that if Xi were to put the sanctions squeeze on Kim as part of the administration’s maximum pressure campaign toward North Korea then Trump would ease off on economic demands of China. That understanding was quickly discarded and Trump subsequently escalated tariff pressure on China last year, around the same time he stopped calling Kim Jong-un “little rocket man.” Based on this abrupt reversal, Xi has little reason to believe that Trump would honor a renewed linkage between North Korea and the U.S.-China trade issue.
But the real question is not how China can use North Korea to better manage U.S.-China relations, but what does Kim Jong-un want from China? Kim Jong-un spent his first five years in power taking China for granted, while Xi Jinping pretended Kim Jong-un didn’t exist despite the four successive, ever-larger nuclear tests Kim authorized under Xi’s watch. This state of affairs continued until the news broke that Trump had accepted an invitation to meet with Kim. Since the announcement of the Singapore Summit on March 8th of last year, Kim and Xi have met four times. They are now reunited, bound by both mountains and rivers and by their respective efforts to manage Donald Trump. The frequency of the Xi-Kim meetings, however, seems to be driven more by Kim’s vulnerability than his strength.
In order to stand with Moon or Trump as part of his strategy of normalizing himself as a leader on the world stage, Kim must enhance his own strategic depth and standing, and the most effective way to do so is to convey an image of solidarity with China. But reliance on China to project a sense of strategic depth is problematic for Kim to the extent that it reveals his vulnerability and underscores his dependency on China; i.e., having to borrow a plane from China to fly from Pyongyang to Singapore for his meeting with Trump. Increasingly close ties between North Korea and China also magnify American mistrust of China as a potential manipulator of U.S.-North Korean mutual hostility. Trump has himself expressed concern that China might play the role of spoiler in U.S.-North Korea negotiations even while talking up his great relationship with Xi. In sum, Kim’s meetings with Xi are an effort to drive up the price in negotiations with the United States beyond what North Korea would be able to demand on its own. That is why North Korea’s survival and Kim Jong-un’s strategy depend on exploiting and enlarging the scope of strategic disagreements between Washington and Beijing.
North Korea has long taken China for granted because it perceives the geopolitical necessity of China’s interest in maintaining North Korea as a stable buffer. But North Korea is still very aware of the opposite side of this equation – that Kim needs to be close to China to secure the counterweight and leverage necessary to negotiate improved relations with other actors on more favorable terms than otherwise attainable – and this dependence frustrates the North Koreans. Without an opposing great power to play off against China, North Korean room to maneuver is limited by its dependence on China. North Korea aims to be taken seriously as a strategic actor, but has no choice but to rely on its essential benefactor to do so, all while biting the Chinese hand that feeds it. The nuclear North Korea challenge Trump faces is far deeper than whether he can get along with Kim, or hold meetings that garner high ratings.
Rather, the challenge is whether it is possible forge a mutually constructive relationship with North Korea, an actor inherently predisposed to exploiting and magnifying great power competition. For the United States, neither competition with nor displacement of China will likely induce North Korea to pursue a more constructive course of action. The South Korean impulse to integrate and socialize North Korea from outlier status to participant in a mutually prosperous regional order is probably the only plausible means by which to tame North Korea, but it is not by any means guaranteed to succeed. In this respect, despite the manifest vulnerabilities Kim displays by traveling to China on his birthday, he still has reason to ask for a big present from Xi—as well as from Moon and Trump.