North Korean leader Kim Jong-un with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: AFP

When US President Donald Trump took office, taking the advice of the foreign policy establishment, he made North Korea his top international priority. It was so important, he suggested, that China’s cooperation in pressuring Pyongyang was worth going easy on them when it came to trade.

The strategy paid off, according to many security analysts, leading to China’s implementation of harsh sanctions that some have given credit for bringing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table. Others have noted that Kim had a number of reasons to take advantage of this diplomatic opportunity, and that the North Korean economy is actually doing better than in the past, but nonetheless Trump was happy to take credit.

Following the historic meeting between the US President and his North Korean counterpart, and after the failure of ongoing trade talks, Trump finally followed through on threats to challenge China on trade. Meanwhile, reports from the border between North Korea and China have painted a picture of bustling underground, sanctions-evading trade and optimism that the two countries are on the verge of opening up for business.

This week, a top North Korean economic official reportedly arrived in Beijing to discuss cooperation in the fields of agriculture, railways and electricity. The trip comes after Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun reported that Kim Jong-un asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to ease up on sanctions.

At the same time, skepticism abounds that North Korea will be willing to fully denuclearize, let alone do so within a one year timeline cited by the Trump administration.

Ahead of his planned return to North Korea later this week, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned his Chinese counterpart against backsliding on sanctions pressure, emphasizing “the continued importance of full enforcement of all relevant UN Security Council resolutions related to North Korea.”

Has the Trump administration fully de-linked China’s cooperation on North Korea from trade? If Beijing loosens up on sanctions enforcement before Pyongyang has taken steps to denuclearize, will the US and China’s bilateral relationship get even worse?

For the moment, there is no specific deal or roadmap worked out for North Korea to denuclearize. Presumably, Pompeo’s trip this week will provide more clues. Is China still on board to keep up the maximum pressure campaign, while taking sanctions abuse from the US in stride?

By most accounts, China would rather the North not have nuclear weapons. But few would suggest that Beijing would have signed on to such harsh sanctions were it not for pressure from Washington. What kind of promises from Pyongyang Pompeo comes away with after his trip this week may shed light on how much pressure the Kim regime is feeling.

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