18 July 2019
North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un (left) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on March 28. Photo: Reuters
North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un (left) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on March 28. Photo: Reuters

Kim’s visit to China: you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours

The North Korea nuclear crisis took a totally unexpected turn last week when Kim Jong-un paid a four-day visit to Beijing and met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

It was Kim’s first known foreign trip ever since he assumed power back in 2011.

According to Xinhua News Agency, Kim said he chose China as the destination of his maiden diplomatic trip because he wanted to express his sincerity in inheriting and treasuring the “traditional friendship” between China and North Korea.

As we all know, the once close ties between China and North Korea have gone sour ever since Kim took power.

Not only have the two countries been drifting further apart over the past six years, China has also turned against North Korea and agreed with the US-led sanctions against it.

Worse still, it appears Beijing has been increasingly sidelined in the ongoing crisis on the peninsula, with Pyongyang, Washington and even Seoul continuing to bypass China and making direct contacts among themselves.

President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and US President Donald Trump have agreed to meet with Kim in April and May respectively to seek the peaceful resolution of the military standoff across the 38th parallel.

Then all of a sudden, amid the prevailing view that China is no longer relevant in the issue, Kim, accompanied by his wife Ri Sol-jupaid a surprise visit to Beijing and met with Xi. This immediately begs the question: Why did Kim suddenly reach out to China in such a friendly manner?

We believe Kim visited Beijing at this delicate moment because in view of the enormous variables in his upcoming meetings with Moon and Trump, Kim probably thought that it would be in his country’s best interest to return to the old path of “traditional friendship” with China and secure Beijing’s support.

That way, no matter how the talks with Seoul and Washington play out eventually, Beijing, the “big brother”, would still have Kim’s back, thereby preventing the worst-case scenario of Pyongyang’s complete isolation.

From China’s perspective, it is also in its interest to accept North Korea’s olive branch and continue their relationship because Beijing can regain its influence over the Korean Peninsula crisis.

By using Pyongyang as a bargaining chip, Beijing may also gain substantial leverage over Washington at a time when an all-out Sino-US trade war is looming large on the horizon.

In other words, Kim is seeking to navigate between the great powers in order to maximize his diplomatic gains. Beijing, meanwhile, is willing to play footsie with Kim because it is pretty much “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 29

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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