By Ishaan Tharoor, Washington Post–
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made a surprise visit to Beijing on Tuesday, marking the young despot’s first trip overseas since he came to power in 2011. A readout from China’s Xinhua news agency of his exchanges with Chinese President Xi Jinping indicated that the ground was being prepared for Kim and President Trump to hold talks over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.
“The issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved,” Kim said, according to Xinhua, “if South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace.” (Tellingly, though, not a single North Korean account had Kim invoking “denuclearization,” the White House’s stated goal for the Korean peninsula.)
The Trump administration greeted the news from Beijing as a positive sign for further diplomacy. President Trump indicated that he was looking forward to dialogue with Pyongyang — a marked reversal from last year’s “fire and fury” bluster — and congratulated himself for applying the “maximum sanctions and pressure” that supposedly brought Kim closer to the table.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert tweeted that Kim’s visit “was an unprecedented, historic step in the right direction” and proof that Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign is working.” That may be the case, but it still remains profoundly unclear what concessions, if any, Trump may win in putative talks with North Korea. Here are three major questions that loom over the proceedings, should they take place.
Is ‘denuclearization’ actually feasible?
Complete denuclearization is the administration’s stated goal, but it is still a pipe dream.
The North Koreans have talked about denuclearization for years, but that has not stopped them from beefing up their nuclear arsenal and conducting numerous missile tests since Trump took office. As Kim and Xi posed for pictures in Beijing, a review of recent satellite imagery appeared to show a new North Korean reactor that could generate plutonium coming online.
For Kim, the threat posed by North Korean nuclear weapons is essential to his survival on the world stage, a deterrent to those who might actively entertain plans to instigate regime change. Now, after talks with both the South Koreans and the Chinese, Kim is trying to determine what leverage he may have in negotiations with the United States.
Kim “is starting a new game where he could make concessions on denuclearization,” Yang Xiyu, a leading Chinese expert on North Korea, told the New York Times. “At most, he will cut the grass, but he will not pull out the roots.”
Even if Kim indicates a willingness to denuclearize, “he’ll likely follow that up with a price that the United States should not be willing to pay,” wrote Ankit Panda, an expert on Asia-Pacific security issues. That could include a drawdown of American forces in South Korea or even a broader withdrawal from northeast Asia. This would be welcomed in Beijing and Moscow, but rejected by most policymakers in Washington.
“It’s worth remembering that Pyongyang’s interpretation of a ‘denuclearized Korean Peninsula’ is not one where its arsenal has been ‘completely, verifiably, and irreversibly’ dismantled as Washington would like,” Panda noted, “but one where it gives up its weapons in exchange for the United States withdrawing its nuclear shield from the Peninsula and leaving altogether.”
What’s at stake for China?
For Beijing, the Kim visit was an opportunity to reassert itself as the central player in any deliberations involving North Korea. It’s also an important reminder to Trump that China’s interests in the region are hardly the same as those of the United States, especially as Beijing and Washington draw lines in the sand ahead of a possible trade war.
Despite the reported frostiness between Kim and Xi — and the wider apathy toward North Korea felt by many Chinese — the two countries remain historic allies. Chinese television footage of the Xi-Kim summit showed the North Korean leader scribbling notes during their discussions, the junior scribe to the wiser, stronger mentor.
“Beijing is reasserting itself and looking to shape the agenda for the upcoming summits,” Adam Mount, a senior fellow and director of the Defense Posture Project at the Federation of American Scientists, said to my colleagues. “Divisions between Beijing and Pyongyang were a major asset to Trump’s pressure campaign,” he said. Reinforcing their ties would weaken “Trump’s hand in negotiations and diminish further the effectiveness of U.S. military threats.”
A half-decade of somewhat tetchy relations with China, though, provided Kim the platform to emerge as a force of his own.
“Shutting China out and ramping up the rhetoric with the United States gave (Kim) the space and justification he needed to expedite the building of nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles,” Jean H. Lee, a North Korea expert and fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, wrote in an email to my colleagues. “Now, with a program he feels confident is a proven threat, he feels emboldened to force the region’s leaders to treat him as an equal, not as the young son of a dictator who inherited power.”
Will John Bolton undermine Trump?
The ascent of Bolton, the bellicose former diplomat tapped to become Trump’s national security adviser next month, led critics to warn of a new warmonger in chief in the White House. Bolton has suggested that the United States should consider a first strike on North Korea and offer no concessions should the two sides meet.
Bolton’s line may cut against Trump’s instincts. The president’s unorthodox foreign-policy positions have led him, for example, to question the seemingly permanent U.S. military presence in the region — something that hawks such as Bolton would never consider a bargaining chip.
“His appointment may increase the pressure on the Kim regime. But it may also make it more likely that the U.S. adopts a very skeptical attitude to any concessions offered by the North Koreans,” wrote Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times. “On the other hand, Mr Trump is known to yearn for a ‘deal of the century’ that he can brandish as proof of his presidential prowess. He will not want Mr. Bolton to get in the way.”