An enigmatic North Korean leader takes a secretive train trip to China to affirm fraternal ties and declare a commitment to denuclearisation.
It sounds like Kim Jong-un’s visit this week, but his father and predecessor Kim Jong-il made similar declarations on a trip to Beijing, months before he died in 2011. Yet North Korea’s nuclear-weapons development only sped up.
US President Donald Trump expressed optimism on Wednesday after the younger Kim’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, saying there’s “a good chance” that Kim will “do what is right for his people and for humanity”. But there are plenty of reasons to be sceptical that the US-North Korean summit slated for May will produce the breakthrough that Washington wants.
After a year of escalating tensions, Mr Trump agreed to talks after South Korean officials relayed that Kim was committed to ridding the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons and was willing to halt nuclear and missile tests.
That has reduced fears of war that elevated as Mr Trump and Kim traded threats and insults and North Korea demonstrated it was close to being able to strike the US with a nuclear-tipped missile.
Kim Jong-un open to discussing weapons programme: Chinese news agency
Kim’s meeting with Xi offered some reassurance to Washington that denuclearisation will be up for negotiation if the first summit between American and North Korean leaders in seven decades of animosity takes place.
Other regional leaders have followed Mr Trump’s lead. Japan has sounded out the North Korean government about a bilateral summit, and Pyongyang has discussed the possibility of a leaders' meeting with Japan and other countries, Japan’s Asahi newspaper said on Thursday.
The government of Kim Jong-un has informed leaders of North Korea's ruling Korean Workers Party of the possibility of summits with Japan, Russia and other countries, the newspaper said, citing an unidentified North Korean source and briefing papers.
“The Japanese government has expressed a wish to host a leaders meeting, via the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan,” or Chongryon, Pyongyang’s de facto embassy in Japan, the Asahi quoted the briefing papers as saying.
A Japanese government source told Reuters in mid-March that Japan was considering seeking a summit between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Kim to discuss Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents decades ago.
But while Mr Trump has elevated expectations of what that sit-down would achieve, North Korea has yet to spell out what it wants in return for abandoning a weapons program that Kim likely views as a guarantee for the survival of his totalitarian regime.
The read-out of Kim’s remarks to Xi as reported by China’s state news agency Xinhua strongly indicates Pyongyang is looking for significant American concessions.
“The issue of denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved,” Kim was quoted as saying, “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 realisation of peace.”
To many North Korea watchers, that sounds like old wine in a new bottle.
In May 2011, the elder Kim, who was making what would be his final trip to China, told then-president Hu Jintao that the North was “adhering to the goal of denuclearisation.”
That came months after North Korea had revealed a uranium-enrichment plant that gave it a second path for making fuel for atomic bombs.
Abraham Denmark, a former senior US defence official, said the North’s latest offer to denuclearise still appears contingent on the US creating the right conditions. In the past, Pyongyang demanded that it withdraw troops from the peninsula, and end its security alliance with South Korea and the nuclear protection it offers its ally.
“It’s possible that Kim Jong-un has a different meaning in mind,” said Denmark, now director of the Asia program at the Wilson Centre think tank. “So far it sounds like the same old tune.”
Ending six years of international seclusion, Kim was spirited into Beijing by special train under tight security like his father before him. He met with Xi, seeking to repair relations that have been frayed as China has supported tough UN sanctions and slashed trade with its wayward ally in frustration over its refusal to stop its provocative behaviour.
US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Kim’s first foreign trip was a “historic step in the right direction” and proof that US-led campaign of “maximum pressure” of economic sanctions was working. Mr Trump said that the pressure would be maintained for now, but offered an optimistic view of how he could achieve peace and denuclearisation that eluded past administrations: “Now there is a good chance that Kim Jong-un will do what is right for his people and for humanity. Look forward to our meeting.”
There is another way of looking at it.
It could be North Korea not Mr Trump that is calling the shots. When Kim offered an olive branch to South Korea in the new year, he also warned that the entire US was within range of the North’s atomic weapons. With that capability in hand, he may now going on a diplomatic offensive, using it as leverage to win aid and security guarantees rather than with an intent of giving it up.
Mr Trump’s choice as national security adviser, John Bolton, is famously sceptical of diplomacy with North Korea. Just a month ago, he made the case for a pre-emptive military strike on the North. That raises questions about whether he might advocate for the same should Mr Trump’s summit with Kim fail.
Experts at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies think tank said in an analysis that by meeting Xi, Kim may be seeking an insurance policy that “even if summit talks fail with the US that North Korea could still fall back on its relationship with China”.
The Japanese prime minister, a close ally of Mr Trump, is worried about a less-than-ideal outcome.
Mr Abe said on Wednesday that he is worried that in his talks with Kim, Mr Trump will focus on the intercontinental missiles that can reach the US mainland and not the shorter-range missiles that threaten Japan and may “end up accepting North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons”.