This week will witness Xi Jinping’s first visit to the neighbouring DPRK where he will be hosted by Kim Jong-un. Although Xi and Kim have meet multiple times over the last year and a half, all of these meetings have thus far been held on Chinese soil. Now, Xi’s visit is set to be the most prominent to the DPRK by a foreign head of state since a young Russian President Vladimir Putin travelled to Pyongyang in the year 2000 for a meeting with Kim Jong-Il.
According to media reports, Xi and Kim will discuss de-nuclearisation, the ongoing peace process, opportunities for the DPRK to reform its economy and a future inclusive of Belt and Road connectivity for the previously isolated country.
This agenda is ambitious but ultimately predictable, not least because the entire international community stands behind a sustainable peace process for the Korean peninsula. But beyond this, the timing of the visit offers insight into what else might be discussed behind closed doors in Pyongyang.
Whilst China (like Russia and even South Korea) advocates for a gradual lifting of sanctions against Pyongyang during the peace process whilst Washington’s position remains one of only lifting sanctions after de-nuclearisation, apart from this detail, the Korean peace process is a unique area of agreement between China and the United States.
As Xi’s meeting with Kim comes exactly a week prior to the G20 summit in Osaka after which Donald Trump has threatened to raise new tariffs if he is not able to meet Xi for a discussion of the trade war, it cannot be discounted that the symbolism of the Xi-Kim summit relates to wider issues that stretch beyond those facing the Korean peninsula.
Although the concept of a country like the DPRK mediating in the disputes of others might sound far fetched, the Chinese aphorism “May you live in interesting times” very aptly applies to the current situation. Whilst they spent the better part of 2017 threatening and insulting each other, today Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump share a relationship that the US President has characterised as loving. In spite of China-US tensions Trump continues to often refer to the Chinese President as “my good friend Xi”. Yet when viewed holistically, it would appear that Trump’s relationship with Kim is one of the strongest that he shares with any other world leader in spite of its shaky origins.
Uniquely among world leaders and in spite of continued criticisms of the DPRK from others in Washington, Trump has never criticised Kim in public since they first shook hands in Singapore last year. Even when events seem to be pushing the US and DPRK back apart, Trump always takes to Twitter or to the microphone to confirm his personal confidence in Kim and his overall confidence in the Korean peace process. When it comes to such treatment at the hands of Donald Trump, leaders as diverse as Hassan Rouhani, Emmanuel Macron, Vladimir Putin, Nicolas Maduro, Justin Trudeau and Angela Merkel could only hope to be treated so congenially by the US President.
And thus one comes to the China-US trade war. Whilst as recently as last month it seemed as though a breakthrough was possible, talks have broken down and since then the US has intensified an embargo against Huawei products that is projected to take a financial toll on the flagship brand and global 5G leader. Because of this, companies throughout the world could use a reprieve from an ultimately mutually destructive trade war.
As Kim and Trump share what can only be called a special relationship, there is every possibility that Kim might suggest some points to Xi which can help to restore trust and even some element of personal harmony to tense China-US relations. In turn, as Kim is known to frequently correspond with Trump via writing, Kim might well write to his friend Donald Trump to offer his respectful assessment of China’s position which continues to be misunderstood and even mis-portrayed in the United States.
Unfortunately for the wider world, it will not become immediately known whether Xi and Kim discuss the China-US trade war. That being said as this year Kim offered his first statements to the international media whilst in Hanoi and with Trump prone to reveal bits of private discussions via Twitter, one might learn about the “unexpected” content of the Xi-Kim meeting sooner than one might imagine.