SEOUL—China’s President Xi Jinping got a 21-gun salute as he and his wife arrived Thursday in Pyongyang. North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un was on hand at Sunan airport with his wife and nearly 10,000 of his people waving flowers and chanting slogans. Another 200,000 reportedly lined the streets as Xi and Kim rode into town in a roofless limousine for a ceremonial call at the mausoleum containing the remains of Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, and grandfather, dynasty founder Kim Il Sung.
It was a set piece opening on the way to a pre-scripted denouement on Friday at which Xi is sure to wind up his first visit to the North Korean capital just as he began it, promising full support to whatever Kim has to say about denuclearization.
Kim has visited Xi in Beijing four times, but Xi’s presence in Pyongyang as the first Chinese leader to go there in 14 years made plain how strongly he wants to show his allegiance to Kim’s strategy for dealing with the United States.
The timing of the long-planned visit is critical, right in the midst of two broiling disputes that Xi is struggling to resolve in his favor.
The first is Hong Kong, where millions of demonstrators compelled Xi’s handpicked boss to back down on an extradition agreement that would have Hong Kong authorities sending alleged miscreants back to China whenever Chinese authorities beckoned.
And the second is the ongoing trade dispute with the U.S. that has the Chinese worried over tariffs in a battle with ripple effects felt throughout the region and potentially around the world.
What better way to avenge the wrongs of the Trumpian trade tactics, from the Chinese perspective, than to have Xi loudly proclaiming exactly what North Korea wants from the U.S. as well as from South Korea?
Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, backed up North Korea’s position with a commentary saying both sides, Kim and Trump, “need to have reasonable expectations and refrain from imposing unilateral and unrealistic demands.”
The Americans have balked previously at China’s “suspension for suspension” proposal calling for steps by both sides leading to denuclearization. The U.S., judging from Kim’s failure to do anything about his nuclear program since the summit with President Trump at Singapore in June of last year, sees anything like step-by-step as a device to get the U.S. to give up sanctions imposed after the North’s nuclear and missile tests in 2017 .
For all the political theater, and the prestige Kim garnered by meeting with Trump one to one, there have been no real concessions in return other than the promise not to conduct more tests or fire more missiles. The fragility of that understanding was apparent last month when Kim twice ordered the firing of "projectiles"—short range missiles by another name.
Xi chose to publicize his views a day before getting to Pyongyang. In a commentary in Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, he waxed lyrical as he evoked memories of China’s role in driving the Americans and South Koreans out of North Korea in the early months of the Korean War.
China was all for the North’s “right direction for politically solving the issue on the Korean peninsula,” he maintained, after having been “on the same boat and marched forward arduously throughout the rain and gusts” for the past 70 years. (The timing was a little off—but not by much. It was 69 years ago on June 25, or June 24 in the U.S., that North Korean forces, with the blessing of China’s leader Mao Zedong, launched the Korean War by invading South Korea.
As Xi and his entourage were taking off from Beijing for Pyongyang, Rodong Sinmun, the organ of the North Korean communist party, outdid Xi’s own commentary in its enthusiasm. His visit, the paper rhapsodized, “will add an unforgettable page in the history of our friendly relations and further strengthen the ties between the two countries.”
Given all the advance hype, basically the only question about the visit seemed to be the wording of the flowery communique that’s sure to emerge Friday from their talks, which began right after the visit to the mausoleum.
“President Xi’s visit will create the momentum for breaking the impasse between North Korea and the U.S.,” said Yang Xiyu of the China Institute of International Studies, in Seoul to attend a forum sponsored by South Korea’s unification ministry and the Sejong Institute, a government-funded think tank. “China will remain committed to all resolutions regarding North Korea. The new momentum will be great.”
Certainly that was just what South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in wanted to hear as he presses Trump for a third summit with Kim. Moon was definitely heartened when Trump said he had received a “beautiful letter” from Kim—even if Trump still defended the sanctions that Kim hates.
Moon also hopes to maintain the momentum with another meeting with Kim, whom he has already seen four times. In the meantime, Trump will be seeing Xi at the G20 meeting of world leaders in Osaka later this month—before flying to Seoul on June 29 to see Moon.
The U.S. nuclear envoy, Stephen Biegun, in Washington, said the U.S. was open to more talks “without preconditions” but then cautioned about the need to be “very careful in the messages we send." The North Koreans, he said, had to be willing to talk about denuclearization in working-level talks, which should be “definitely the pathway to success.”
If Pyongyang was fairly brimming with euphoria, though, the view from the outside remained pessimistic. “The skepticism about China’s role is profound,” said Frank Jannuzi, president of the Mansfield Foundation in Washington. “The meeting will not be viewed as helpful in the long-term process.”
In fact, Xi’s blatant show of support for North Korea, basically a Chinese protectorate from the Korean War onward, dependent on China for all its oil and half its food, raised the question of his interest in the dimensions of China’s historic domination of the entire Korean peninsula.
For many, Jannuzi said, the question was whether China wanted to extend its influence from the Yalu River border with North Korea down to the Demilitarized Zone—or all the way to the major port city of Busan in the southeastern corner of South Korea.
The nature of the rhetoric suggested Xi sees China’s influence extending over both Koreas. Whatever he may say, any deal with Kim Jong Un has to be secondary to Beijing’s interests.