The North Korea-China Summit: Did Kim ask Xi for help with his Trump meeting? Here’s what may have happened

Surprise talks between North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and Chinese President Xi Jinping were held in China this week – now confirmed by Chinese state news media – could have a major impact on U.S. efforts to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons and avert a horrific war that could escalate into a nuclear nightmare.

What did Kim and Xi – ostensibly allies – talk about? Obviously, leaders of the two Communist nations had much to discuss, considering momentous events in East Asia over the last year. And a crucial issue is what role China will play in the upcoming talks planned between North and South Korea, as well as the hotly awaited summit between President Trump and Kim.  

While we will likely never know all the fine details of Kim-Xi summit, we do know some of the major topics that needed to be discussed. Here is a rundown of why these two world leaders came together, and what could happen next:

China wants a seat at the table: While seemingly sidelined as North Korea attempts to lessen tensions with South Korea and America, Xi and his government likely wanted to make sure that Kim knows who controls the North’s fate at the end of the day.

I would argue that Kim’s goal in meeting with Xi was to gauge Beijing’s tolerance for North Korea’s strategy for a summit with President Trump. It is even possible that Kim could have been asking his Chinese masters to help him get out of the summit entirely or to help delay it.

China is many times larger, wealthier, and more powerful militarily than North Korea. It is the North’s chief ally – in fact, just about its only ally. China is also the destination for over 90 percent of North Korea’s exports, and sends massive amounts of fuel and natural resources to the North at subsidized prices. Beijing is determined to ensure that its interests – and investment – are well served.

By asking – or more likely demanding – that Kim come to China to meet with Xi, the Chinese wanted to make clear to Kim that he had to keep China informed and possibly get Xi’s OK on any deals the North cuts with South Korea and the U.S.

North Korea-South Korea talks: The item at the top of the Kim-Xi agenda was likely how the North will handle upcoming preliminary talks with South Korea, planned for Thursday, and a potential North-South summit coming in April. Xi likely wanted to have an idea of what a proposed roadmap by North Korea for détente with the South would look like.

Beijing is likely also wondering what demands North Korea might have for the South, and if the North plans to try some sort of divide and conquer strategy – pushing a soft line towards South Korea but demanding major concessions from Washington that could ultimately increase tensions.

U.S.-North Korea Summit: Will a summit actually occur between North Korea and the United States? Only Xi and Kim likely know for sure what they plan, and even if they want to go ahead, President Trump could still wind up backing out of the historic meeting.

I would argue that Kim’s goal in meeting with Xi was to gauge Beijing’s tolerance for North Korea’s strategy for a summit with President Trump. It is even possible that Kim could have been asking his Chinese masters to help him get out of the summit entirely or to help delay it.

The reasons for this are clear if one digs a little deeper. For example, The Chinese state news agency reported that Kim offered to give up his nuclear weapons in Beijing, quoting him as saying: “The issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved, if South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace.”

The challenge with such a statement is what does the phrase “progressive and synchronous measures” actually mean? Basically, what would Kim Jong Un demand from the United States and South Korea for giving up his nuclear weapons?

Would the North demand, for example, the ending of the U.S.-South Korea alliance and the removal of all U.S. forces from the Korean Peninsula? Would Kim demand America also denuclearize, as he has demanded in the past? An absurd demand that like would show Kim had no intention of negotiating seriously.

And let’s go further afield and think through what terms North Korea would seek in the denuclearization process. Would Pyongyang allow international inspectors full access to all parts of the country? Would the North allow the total destruction of all aspects of its nuclear program, including all nuclear reactors? What happens to North Korea’s missile program or chemical and biological weapons programs?

As you can see, Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un had much to talk about. And this is all just the beginning of what will be a historic few weeks in Asia. Either history will be made, or we will be back at the brink of war all over again. Stay tuned.

Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, founded by former President Richard M. Nixon. Click here, for more on Mr. Kazianis.