Chinese President Xi Jinping’s two-day state visit to North Korea and his meetings with leader Kim Jong Un started Thursday and ended Friday with minimal information leakage, despite intense global interest in both the trip and its timing.

Prior to the trip, which ostensibly celebrated 70 years of diplomatic relations, Chinese state media stated that economic issues would be the central focus, although Xi, in an unusual editorial in North Korea’s leading newspaper, made clear his intention to take a higher profile role in Korean peninsula affairs.

Kim said nothing, but he wants sanctions relief and economic aid. And his eyes are almost certainly fixed on 2020 and 2021, two years when he may very well need Xi’s support.

Both men, engaged in confrontations with the US administration, have good reason to firm up – and be seen to firm up – their relationship.

A sea of North Korean flags wave for Kim and Xi. Photo: Xinhua

Little to show, less to report

Chinese footage showed Kim and Xi, with their wives greeting each other as the Chinese state aircraft landed in Pyongyang, then the two leaders standing in an open-topped Mercedes limo as it proceeded into central Pyongyang, waving regally at crowds of people lining the route.

More somber images came from a ceremony at the Friendship Tower, a memorial to Chinese troops – more than 180,000 of whom died defending North Korea against a US-led UN alliance during the 1950-53 Korean War.

Upbeat good vibes were more evident when the two, with their wives, attended a mass gymnastics event featuring thousands of performers. According to Chinese media, the performance, which was “highly Korean,” was accompanied by three orchestras and included four segments: “Our Socialist Homeland,” “Echo of Victory,””For a Better Tomorrow” and “Unbreakable Friendship.” The event, which  started and ended with fireworks, included several Chinese songs.

Mass gymnastics underway. Photo; Xinhua

Footage also appeared of the two, with their delegations, engaged in negotiations.

Chinese media only reported vague statements of amity.

“Recalling the 70 years of the China-[North Korea] relationship, Xi hailed the traditional friendship between the two sides, a shared valuable asset forged and left by leaders of elder generations of both countries, saying that such a friendship has remained strong and vigorous despite constant change,” Xinhua reported.

Pyongyang’s Korea Central New Agency offered little more.

“Kim Jong Un highly appreciated that his visit comes to be a decisive occasion to demonstrate the immutability and invincibility of the [North Korea]-China friendship before the world and is of great significance in further consolidating the friendly relations between the two countries that greeted a new age of vitality,” the KCNA reported. 

The opacity may be deliberate. Experts told Asia Times on Thursday that there is good reason for Xi, in particular, to pique US interest.

Time and place

Xi’s trip had drawn considerable international interest given its timing.

It follows the failure of the North Korea-US summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February, to advance the North Korean denuclearization process, and took place one week before the G20 leaders’ summit in  Osaka, Japan. It also comes amid an increasingly bloody trade war between China and the United States.

North Korea invited, then disinvited, global media from attending – suggesting, perhaps, that Xi wanted to keep the global spotlight at minimum glare.

The low-profile Kim-Xi meet stands in contrast to Kim’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok in May, which took place with a plentiful crop of TV cameras in attendance.

However, even though Putin is more media-friendly than Xi and especially Kim, the actual outcome of that meeting also remains opaque. A Russian source in a position to know told Asia Times this week that he was still in the dark about what was actually discussed.

Chinese and North Korean flags are paraded at Pyongyang’s May 1st Stadium. Photo: Xinhua

New formula?

From Xi’s perspective, whether the trip is successful may only become clear when he meets US President Donald Trump in Osaka, where the two are expected to either knock heads or light peace pipes over the trade war they are both fighting.

Xi’s meeting with Kim will almost certainly give him some titillating conversation points with Trump. He may even offer a new formula to advance ties between Pyongyang and Washington on the denuclearization issue.

Still, whether his relationship with, and influence over Kim – China is not only North Korea’s key trade partner, it is its economic lifeline – will serve as effective leverage with Trump in ameliorating the intensifying trade war, is, as yet, unknown.

From Kim’s perspective, the trip has almost certainly firmed up bilateral ties, offering him a comfort zone he may well benefit from in the next two years.

Following Kim’s execution of his uncle, Jang Song-taek – a long-term regime insider who enjoyed close economic links with Beijing – in 2013, Beijing-Pyongyang ties turned Arctic.

A de-frosting process started at the beginning of 2018, when Kim leapt out of his customary posture of isolation. He has visited Xi in China four times – more than any other leader – since beginning his diplomatic charm offensive.

Xi’s visit to Pyongyang may provide the icing on the cake – indicating that Kim now enoys the Chinese leader’s seal of approval, and that the unpleasant bygones of the recent past are, indeed, bygones.

Deadlines approaching

A solid relationship with Xi means that if his negotiation process with Trump ultimately hits a brick wall, the Chinese leader will have his back. This could be particularly critical over the next two years.

Kim has said he will give the US channel a chance to deliver until the end of this year before considering other options. If Pyongyang-Washington talks do, indeed, remain deadlocked, tensions could well revisit the peninsula in 2020 – and in spades.

“The Marshal” has shown himself to be a master strategic poker player, but even so, his self-appointed deadline might be enough to give himself an occasional attack of vapors if there are no positive signals in the second half of the year.

Putting  more pressure on Kim’s nerves is the fact that, one year later, a key strategic lifeline is up for renegotiation: The Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty of 1961 comes up for renewal in 2021. Article 2 of the agreement binds both nations to oppose any country or coalition that attacks either nation.

That treaty and his nuclear arsenal are Kim’s two most critical strategic assets. It seems reasonable to assume that a treaty renewal was discussed with Xi.

Economic fractures

Whether there was any economic outcome is unknown.

Kim seeks sanctions relief which Xi looks unlikely to grant. China is a standing member of the UN Security Council, so cannot break sanctions in plain sight. What it can do, is look the other way while various trades take place across the border.

Consulting is another issue. China has long urged Pyongyang to undertake the kind of capitalist reengineering of a socialist economy that it has carried out itself – pleas that appear to have fallen largely on deaf ears, given the gray and murky status of market economics in North Korea.

Even so, since ties thawed in 2018, a number of North Korean officials have been dispatched to cities and agencies across the Middle Kingdom to examine Chinese reforms.

Meanwhile, Chinese businesspeople have been actively trading with North Korea since the 1990s. Given North Korea’s dearth of trade partners, they have had considerable leverage in setting prices, a state of affairs which, though inevitable, is unlikely to sit well with Pyongyang.

However what North Korea really seeks – Chinese investment, including infrastructure development, managerial nous and technology transfer – has been minimal.

Moreover, there has been virtually zero Chinese interest in Pyongyang’s grandiose plans for its 28 special economic zones (SEZs) nationwide. Those lie largely dormant, deflated by both Chinese disinterest and suffering further lack of oxygen due to UN sanctions.