On Thursday, Chinese President Xi Jinping travels to North Korea for a two-day visit to commemorate 70 years of the two nations’ diplomatic relations. This will be Xi’s fifth meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the last 15 months, and Xi has not met with any other national leader with such high frequency. But neither has any other North Korean leader ever enjoyed such hectic and wide-ranging global summitry.

This will be Kim’s 12th summit-level meeting since April last year. These include three summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in (with a fourth in the making), two with US President Donald Trump (with a third in the making), and one each with Vietnamese President Nguyen Phu Trong and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Indeed, Kim’s charm offensive is putting world leaders almost on the defensive, as if vying to cultivate ties with this once-pariah hermit kingdom.

Among these nations, the Chinese seem understandably the most keen to ensure their share of the jinpang (Korean bun), seeking to revive their “lips and teeth” relationship, though this is now driven not by ideology but by China’s cost-versus-benefit security analysis.

Trump’s unending trade war with China and his “maximum pressure” tactics for “a verified and complete denuclearization” of North Korea seem to have ignited this shared sentiment of brotherhood reminiscent of the China-North Korea camaraderie of the 1950s. Back then, Mao Zedong dispatched his troops to join their North Korean brothers’ fight against the United States long before he had even unified China under his new Communist regime.

Kim’s aggressive brinkmanship

From the very beginning, North Korea’s third leader from the Kim family, Kim Jong Un, has been far more autonomous than his father or grandfather could ever be. Unlike Kim Il Sung, who was propped up by the Soviets, and Kim Jong Il, sustained by the Chinese, Kim Jong Un began his innings by accelerating his country’s nuclear and missile programs, thereby putting all proponents of a regime-change strategy on a leash.

Not only did Kim survive his brinkmanship with Trump during 2017, he has followed it up with his hyperactive summitry. Now, after his failed Hanoi summit last February, he has recently reactivated his partially decommissioned missile test sites and resumed testing of short-range missiles. These have enormous regional implications, especially as they drew no strong reactions from the Trump team that is trying to organize their third summit.

Moreover, Xi’s desire for vying for influence with the North Korean regime seems also to have been triggered by Kim’s Vladivostok summit with Putin last April. That four-day visit to Russia’s Far East further reinforced Kim’s autonomy vis-a-vis Beijing. Unlike Kim’s two summit meetings with Trump, his meeting with Putin was neither preceded nor followed by consultations with Xi. Moreover, the Kim-Putin summit hyped up possibilities of Russia extending security guarantees to the Kim regime, thereby challenging Beijing’s primacy over North Korean affairs.

No doubt, China remains North Korea’s biggest trading partner and China’s support remains most critical for ensuring compliance with and the efficacy of United Nations or US sanctions on North Korea. But the Kim-Trump summit in Singapore witnessed China advocating sanctions relief, followed by Beijing easing its own pressure on Kim. This invited harsh responses from Trump, accusing China of slowing down denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Such advocacy was also seen as aggravating tensions in US-China ties. This may explain the rationale of this week’s Xi-Kim meeting before the Chinese president meets with his US counterpart at the Group of Twenty summit on June 28-29 in Osaka, Japan.

China’s challenges and limitations

In spite of the “lips and teeth” axiom once describing their special relations, China-North Korea equations have never been easy. Chinese and North Korean forces, having together fought the Japanese and Americans, ended their collaboration in 1958, with Mao recalling the last of his troops over his disagreements with Kim Il Sung’s juche (self-reliance) ideological vision as well as his leanings toward Moscow, which was no longer palatable after the Sino-Soviet split of 1955. 

By 1961, however, the two had again managed to sign a Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance. But again border disputes in the Mount Paektu (Changbaishan) region resulted in military skirmishes by the late 1960s. Deng Xiaoping – who had heralded policy shifts in several sectors – had begun to argue in favor of unification of the Korean Peninsula, saying that it would help undermine the strategic alliance among Washington, Tokyo and Seoul; ease geopolitical pressures on China from Northeast Asia; and be helpful in the resolution of the Taiwan question.

In the early 1990s, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, rising China’s expanding global interests worldwide led Beijing finally to extend diplomatic recognition to South Korea. This left the unstable Pyongyang regime of Kim Jong Il to deal with the sole surviving superpower, the United States, on its own. This was the period of “evil forces” and “rogue regime” nomenclatures being promoted by the United States. This increasing nuance in China’s approach to North Korea in a period of US wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya served as a lesson to young Kim Jong Un, who put his faith in nuclear and missile programs in order to assert his autonomy and ensure the survival of his regime against both internal and external detractors.

In January 2009, Kim Jong Un had been declared heir or “Yŏngmyŏng-han Tongji” (영명한 동지), loosely translated as “brilliant comrade,” and officials were asked by his father Kim Jong Il to pledge loyalty to the younger Kim, who was soon inducted into the National Defense Commission, which was to become his strongest support base. So barely a month after North Korea’s second nuclear test of May 25, 2009, the singular aim of then-premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to Pyongyang was to rein in this rising new “brilliant comrade” by getting North Korea back to the Six-Party Talks. But between the last visit of Chinese premier Li Peng in 1991 and Wen’s in 2009, China’s engagement with North Korea had become more broadband, involving a whole range of sectors using a whole swath of ministerial-level interlocutors.

The Kim Jong Un era has seen further expansion of that broad-basing of North Korea’s interlocutors both at home and abroad. As part of its seeking to “normalize” its diplomacy, Pyongyang has increasingly involved a team of experts in the conduct of inter-state ties. This has brought forward several new names of Kim’s close officials and advisers. Therefore, any evaluation of what is announced or transpires in this week’s Xi-Kim meeting would require keeping an eye on what happens in their follow-up official interactions.