A surprise meeting between North Korea leader Kim Jong Un and President Xi Jinping of China this week has prompted speculation of the immediate and long-term ramifications.
The Kim-Xi meeting is the first of several planned talks between Pyongyang and other world leaders. Kim is expected to meet with South Korea's Moon Jae in late April and President Donald Trump in May, amidst increasing pressure on the Hermit Kingdom to end their nuclear weapons testing.
Experts say that Kim’s visit to Beijing before other countries highlights China’s major role in efforts to end North Korea’s nuclear program.
Given China’s standing as North Korea’s chief provider of energy, Pyongyang’s consultation before meeting with South Korea or the United States makes strategic sense, experts said.
Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Dongguk University, said that “maintaining its traditional relationship with China would give it stronger influence over the United States.”
Whatever the outcome of planned talks with Seoul and Washington may be, Yu-hwan says, North Korea “still needs China’s help.”
Kim Dong-yub, an analyst from Seoul’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies, said he believes the Kim-Xi meeting is the logical next step after both leaders have consolidated their power at home.
During a banquet speech, Kim described China and North Korea as “inseparable brothers” molded by a “scared mutual fight” to achieve socialist ideals, North Korea’s state news agency reported.
Du Hyeogn Cha, a visiting scholar at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said he believes North Korea may be coming to grips with realities as the U.N.-imposed sanctions on Pyongyang continue to cripple its economy.
China has historically taken calculated measures on sanctions, out of fear of destabilizing their neighbors, says Andrew Hammond of the London School of Economics. But in recent months, however, China has taken a harsher stance, including restrictions on oil supply.
Cha said he believes it’s likely North Korea would seek China’s commitment for future support, or at least a promise it won’t hit the country too hard with more sanctions should it resume weapons tests.
However, Yang Xiyu, one of China’s leading experts on the North, believes Mr. Kim’s outreach to China and South Korea, does not necessarily signal his willingness to give up North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.