After it took more than five years for Kim to make his first visit to China last March after taking office in 2012, the North Korean leader arrived in Beijing on Tuesday morning to kick off his fourth visit to its key neighbour within a year.
Kim’s visit coincided with ongoing trade negotiations between Chinese and US officials in Beijing, as both sides seek to reach a detailed agreement to find a consensus between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump during their meeting at the G20 summit in Argentina.
When tensions on the Korean Peninsula reached its peak in 2017, Trump called on China to exert its influence to rein in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions as Pyongyang relies heavily on Beijing economically.
Resist US Pressure
As Beijing appears to be running out of retaliatory measures against further punitive US tariffs, demonstrating its influence over North Korea could become an option for China to thwart excessive demands from the United States during ongoing trade talks, political analysts suggested.
"If the United States pressures China too much and starts to threaten what Beijing views as its core interests, what kind of retaliatory measures are left for Chinese leaders? If China punishes US companies operating in the country, it could risk putting more pressure on the depressed Chinese economy. That’s why North Korea could become a variable option for China to send a signal that Beijing is willing to work with Washington on this issue. The message is simple: if you [the United States] want to make progress on issues related to North Korea, you can’t push us [China] too much," Ding Xueliang, director of the Institute for China's Overseas Interests, Shenzhen University, told Sputnik.
The expert pointed out that it was not a coincidence for Kim to visit Beijing during the same days when US-China trade talks are also being held in the Chinese capital.
"China has always been very sensitive to the timing of such [political] events. As trade talks with the United States carry such significant impact on China, Chinese leaders would never allow an event to take place at the same time, if that event is viewed as disruptive. That’s without question," he said.
Can't Trust US Promises
However, other experts argued that it’s difficult for Beijing to use Pyongyang as a bargaining chip against the United States, because China is unlikely to have direct influence on North Korea’s decisions related to its nuclear arsenal.
"China has already been very flexible when it comes to implementing the United Nations (UN) sanctions against North Korea since last year. Bilateral exchanges have been restored on various levels. And it’s impossible for Chin to openly violate UN resolutions. Even if China relaxes punitive economic measures further, how much impact it would have on North Korea? Pyongyang has never planned to offer more compromises [regarding to its nuclear program]," Zhao Tong, a fellow in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, told Sputnik.
The expert added that such measures would also go against Chinese interests, as Beijing sincerely hopes North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal, which could also pose a security threat to China.
Zhao pointed out that China can no longer trust US promises on linking North Korea with bilateral trade issues, as working with the United States to implement sanctions on North Korea did not stop the Trump administration from initiating a trade war against China.
"From China’s perspective, the trade talks with the United States have no direct links to North Korea. That’s because North Korea is not a card China could use during the trade talks. Trump previously promised that if China cooperates with the United States on issues related to North Korea, he would be more willing to resolve the trade dispute with China. But after Beijing implemented the economic sanctions on Pyongyang and voted in favour of UN resolutions in 2017, that didn’t stop Trump from launching a full-scale trade war in 2018. China can no longer trust such promises from the United States," he said.
Before his historic meeting with Trump in Singapore in June last year, Kim visited China twice in March and May and met with Xi again in June after the Singapore summit.
As the North Korean leader tries to strike a strategic balance between the two great powers, his surprise visit to Beijing could have resulted from his uncertainty about the second summit with Trump, Zhao suggested.
"For Kim Jong Un to visit China, before meeting Trump for a second time, it sends a strong signal to the world that North Korea needs to consult with China before any major meeting with the United States. Theoretically, this kind of signal doesn’t fit North Korea’s long-term strategy of seeking a more independent foreign policy. One logical explanation could be that Kim Jong Un has become uncertain about what to expect from the second summit with Trump," he said.
The expert argued that if Kim is confident about meeting Trump again, he would try to strike a balance between China and the United States and avoid appearing overly reliant on Beijing.
According to the statements released after his visit to China, Kim stated that North Korea continued to adhere to its commitment to denuclearization and resolving the crisis on the Korean Peninsula through dialogue, while working toward reaching positive results from the second summit with Trump.
The views and opinions expressed by the analysts do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.