In advance of the highly anticipated first-ever North Korea-US summit, senior players are in motion: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Dalian, Northeast China, while US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.
Both are return trips, indicating intense diplomatic preparation in advance of the high-stakes Kim-Donald Trump summit, which is expected in mid-June. Kim visited Xi in Beijing in late March and Pompeo visited Kim in Pyongyang last month.
Both those visits took the world by surprise.
Kim, who took power in 2011, had never met the Chinese president – or any other major world leader – before. Relations between “blood allies” Pyongyang and Beijing had been at an all-time low following Kim’s 2013 execution of his uncle, Jang Song-taek – previously, Pyongyang’s point man on China affairs – and following Beijing’s stricter-than-ever enforcement of UN sanctions.
Likewise, there had been no prior announcement of the mission undertaken by former CIA Director Pompeo, suggesting its extreme sensitivity.
However, the current maneuvers coincide with mixed signals on US diplomatic credibility and good faith.
Kim and Xi, cordial and friendly
Chinese state broadcasters released footage of Kim’s Tuesday visit, showing the previously reclusive North Korean head of state and Xi walking on the beach in Dalian late Tuesday.
The meeting was “cordial and friendly” according to Chinese media. “It has been [North Korea’s] consistent and clear stand to achieve denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” Kim said, according to Chinese news agency Xinhua.
Experts believe that the suddenly close relationship between Kim and Xi suits both parties. With Seoul and Washington summiting with Pyongyang, Xi is re-asserting his central role in peninsula affairs. Meanwhile Kim, by re-establishing cozy ties with traditional ally China, can hedge against a possible failure to establish amicable relations in his upcoming summit with Trump.
Trump, meanwhile, Tweeted that he would be telephoning “my friend” Xi to get feedback on the meeting.
In his meeting with Xi, Kim also said, according to Xinhua’s report: “As long as relevant parties abolish their hostile policies and remove security threats against [North Korea], there is no need for [North Korea] to be a nuclear state and denuclearization can be realized.”
Kim’s reference to “relevant parties” is almost certainly an allusion to the United States. Kim reportedly anticipates a phased denuclearization process, and almost certainly expects to receive various incentives, while voices in Washington are calling for “immediate” and “complete, verifiable and irreversible” dismantlement.
Concerns appear to be rising in Pyongyang. After weeks of a notable lack of vitriol in North Korean state media, following the successful outcome of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics – in which North Korean participated, and during which intense politicking took place on the sidelines – Pyongyang raised its voice on Sunday.
State media reported the country’s displeasure at US President Donald Trump’s repeated claims that “maximum pressure” tactics are the reason behind Kim’s current, and unprecedented, diplomatic outreach.
“The US is deliberately provoking [North Korea] at the time when the situation on the Korean Peninsula is moving toward peace and reconciliation,” a Foreign Ministry spokesperson was quoted as saying in the report.
Pompeo in Pyongyang
Meanwhile, the White House confirmed late Tuesday that Pompeo was en route to Pyongyang. Regarding the purpose of his trip, Pompeo said, according to AP, which has a reporter accompanying him, “to put in place a framework for a successful summit.”
Although photos have been released of Pompeo personally meeting Kim during his Easter weekend trip, it is not yet known if he will meet the head of state this time. Kim, whose government does not announce his movements in advance, may still be in China.
As to whether North Korea would free three American detainees being held in the state so they could accompany him home, Pompeo said: “I think it would be a great gesture if they would agree to do so.”
There has been intense speculation in official and unofficial circles in Washington and Seoul over whether the three Korean-Americans – Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak Song and Tony Kim, who have all been accused of anti-state activities in North Korea – are being prepared for release.
If the three are released, it would be Kim’s latest goodwill gesture in advance of his historic summit with Trump.
Kim’s goodwill, Trump’s confusion
Kim has ordered a moratorium on missile and nuclear tests, pledged denuclearization to both Xi and to South Korean President Moon Jae-in and stated his intention to close down his nuclear test site at Punggye-ri.
While analyses suggest that the site is geologically damaged and unusable after six underground tests conducted between 2006 and 2017, Kim has revealed that in fact, there are still two usable tunnels at the site.
Regarding the ongoing developments, Trump said, in a televised statement from the White House: “We think relationships are building with North Korea. We will see how it all works out. Maybe it won’t. But it can be a great thing for North Korea, South Korea and the entire world.”
Trump also announced that the date and location of his summit with Kim have been finalized, but did not release them. The location is expected to be either the inter-Korean truce village of Panmunjom or Singapore: the date is expected to be mid-June.
The fast-moving diplomatic developments are taking place just as the US has announced it is withdrawing from the multinational Iran nuclear deal. This has raised intense concern internationally over American trustworthiness – notably given that Trump is attempting to secure a deal with Pyongyang while abrogating one with Tehran.
“France, Germany and the UK regret the US decision to leave [the deal],” French President Emmanuel Macron wrote on Twitter. Even close ally Japan has characterized Washington’s move as “very regrettable.”
Pundits have also sneered at Pompeo’s diplomatic credibility, given that he reportedly referred to Kim – whose official title is “Chairman of the State Affairs Commission” – as “Chairman Un.”
“Un” is one of Kim’s two given names, which are always used in tandem – ie, “Jong-un” – but only among family or very close friends. Even in more socially relaxed South Korea, many prefer to be addressed by their titles, their surnames or even their initials rather than their given names.