Yes, North Korea Will Give up Its Nukes and Kim Jong Un Is Crying to Prove It
Unlike his grandfather, Kim cannot expect help from China in North Korea’s latest confrontation with America. Relations between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) are not as close as “lips and teeth” as Mao described, but instead have wavered in the decades after the Korean War. After Xi Jinping took office in 2012, PRC-DPRK relations entered a state of deep freeze due to a life-and-death factional struggle in the Chinese government between Xi’s camp and the old Jiang Zemin faction. The Jiang faction was friendly to the Kim family and even supported North Korea’s nuclear program. However, during Xi’s first term, he never visited North Korea. He also refused to attend a Beijing performance starring Kim’s favorite North Korean girl band, instead inviting then South Korean president Park Geun-hye, but not Kim, to his grand military parade in 2015. In response, Kim tested ballistic missiles and nuclear devices during sensitive moments for Xi, such as firing three missiles in September 2016 when world leaders gathered in Hangzhou for the G-20 summit, and detonating a hydrogen bomb hours before Xi addressed leaders of BRICS countries at a summit in Xiamen in September 2017.
It remains to be seen if Xi is ready to mend fences with Kim. After all, Xi considerably weakened the number and clout of Kim’s Chinese supporters through purges as he fought the Jiang faction to consolidate his power. Additionally, recent meetings between Xi and Kim took place under the circumstances of U.S. “maximum pressure” and do not necessarily signify a complete thaw in PRC-DPRK relations. The meetings also do not suggest that Kim is ready to do Xi’s bidding. Around the period of Sino-U.S. trade talks in Washington, North Korea signaled that it was thinking about pulling out of the Singapore summit. The threat to withdraw from the summit could be Kim’s way of extorting concessions from Beijing. Many observers, however, believe that Xi had a hand in North Korea’s “about-face” since he held an unannounced meeting with Kim in the Chinese city of Dalian days before the Washington talks. But Xi has nothing to gain by sabotaging the trade talks with a North Korean gambit because Xi urgently needs to delay any trade war with America.
Indeed, the survival of the Chinese regime hinges on Xi Jinping’s ability to coax Kim to the denuclearization and peace table. The Chinese economy is currently in no shape to withstand a full-blown trade conflict with the U.S., and the Xi administration is still working to deleverage the Chinese financial sector. Meanwhile, Trump has indicated that Sino-U.S. trade is linked with progress on U.S.-North Korea talks. “When I think about trade in China, I’m also thinking about what they’re doing to help us with peace with North Korea,” he said at a press conference on May 22.
For instance, there is the example of the Chinese cell phone company and “national champion” ZTE. That company was paralyzed by a recent U.S. government seven-year business ban. Therefore, Xi has tried to gain a reprieve for that company and buy more time to fix the Chinese economy by cooperating more with Trump rather than with Kim. Otherwise, U.S. tariffs and the death of ZTE would cripple China’s economy and torpedo Xi’s political legitimacy, which it has tied to his ability to provide economic prosperity for the Chinese people.
Faced with an unwilling China and an uncompromising America, Kim may find that he has no choice but to agree to Trump’s demand for complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization to preserve his rule. After all, Trump has promised to help North Korea achieve economic prosperity on par with South Korea and give security guarantees if Kim abandons his nukes. The catch is that for Kim, the biggest headache would come from selling the deal to North Koreans without losing prestige. Already, the propaganda gears are whirling. At a Worker’s Party meeting on April 20, Kim announced a shift away from a byungjin policy (pursuing economic and nuclear development simultaneously) in favor of pursuing economic growth. The documentary of him crying over his inability to reform North Korea’s economy also appears to be part of the propaganda ploy.