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COMMENTARY

Kim's Beijing visit underlines 'change is in the air'

NORTH Korean leader Kim Jong Un is reported to be in Beijing in his first foreign visit since taking power in 2011. The unconfirmed trip, which is almost certainly related to recent developments surrounding the Korean peace process, comes at a time when Beijing has increasingly supported international sanctions against Pyongyang.

The strain that has been put on relations between the two longstanding allies was underlined when China's President Xi Jinping described North Korea's long series of recent military provocations as a threat to his country's national security. Mr Kim will hope his visit could be a turning point given that this is not just his first trip to China, but also his only chance to date to see Mr Xi face-to-face.

For China too, the unannounced visit is a potential boon given that Mr Xi will not be in any of the planned forthcoming meetings between Mr Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in in April, nor the potential summit with US President Donald Trump later this spring. For Beijing, Mr Kim's visit therefore reinforces its role as a key player in the grand diplomatic game that is now being played out, and Mr Xi will be keen to have a stronger sense of what Mr Kim expects or is seeking in his big, forthcoming meetings, especially with Mr Trump.

Mr Kim's reported visit is only the latest sign of moving geopolitical plates over the Korean stand-off. Following spiralling tensions in the peninsula in 2017 over the North's nuclear weapons and missile programmes, 2018 has brought unexpected, and what could yet prove remarkable, diplomatic respite that has seen a mini-rapprochement between North and South.

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Mr Kim's trip to Beijing is only the latest sign that change is in the air and that the diplomatic mood music in the peninsula in 2018 could become very different from last year. By ramping up the sanctions and wider diplomatic pressure on Pyongyang, Mr Xi has played a major role in creating this window of opportunity.

Traditionally, Beijing has been reluctant to take too sweeping measures against its Communist neighbour for fear about squeezing North Korea so hard that it becomes significantly destabilised. Despite the annoyance that Mr Xi has had with Mr Kim, from his vantage point undercutting Pyongyang too much risks the youthful leader there behaving even more unpredictably, and/or the outside possibility of the implosion of the regime.

Mr Xi believes that this will probably not be in Chinese interests for at least two reasons. Firstly, if the Communist regime in the North falls it could undermine the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party too. In addition, he fears that the collapse of order in its neighbour could lead to instability on the North Korea-China border, a potentially large influx of refugees that it would need to manage, and ultimately the potential emergence of a pro-US successor state. It is for these reasons, and several more, that Mr Xi will be keen to learn more about what Mr Kim's diplomatic negotiating game will now be with Seoul and Washington. The Chinese leader has welcomed the "positive things unfolding" between North and South Korea in recent weeks and hopes they will prove significant and sustained.

Yet, he will be aware of the downside risks as well as the opportunities that are now in play, especially with the Trump team. Mr Xi will be well aware that 2018 could yet see tensions rise again in the peninsula.

PYONGYANG'S PROVOCATIONS

At the end of 2017, the apparently gathering storm between the United States and North Korea was showcased by the latter's test-firing in late November of an intercontinental missile (ICBM) which was more powerful and flew higher than any yet by Pyongyang. The launch, condemned by Mr Trump who said he "would take care of the situation", seemingly intensified the US president's 2018 headache over how best to tackle Pyongyang's provocations.

While Mr Trump has, unexpectedly, agreed to meet Mr Kim, he has previously said "that talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work, they only understand one thing!". This commentary reflects not just the volatility of Mr Trump, but also the political pressure he is under on this issue having drawn a "red line" on it previously. He will be well aware that Pyongyang is moving closer to developing a nuclear warhead capable of being fitted on to an intercontinental ballistic missile that can strike the US mainland. The late November missile test, for instance, reached some 4,500 kilometres high and landed around 1,000 kilometres from the west coast of Japan. Strikingly, the US Union of Concerned Scientists has calculated that if the missile had flown on a standard trajectory rather than a lofted one, it would have had a range of 13,000 kilometres which is enough to strike Europe, Australia, or any part of the continental US.

As Mr Xi and Mr Kim will likely discuss, while Mr Trump has agreed to a meeting he is keeping all options on the table. Washington's next steps will depend partly on the outcome on the mini-North South rapprochement, but the two decades-long US policy of "strategic patience" towards Pyongyang is now over as indicated last year by Mr Trump's "fire and fury" and "locked and loaded" rhetoric.

Taken overall, the unconfirmed visit underlines that the geopolitical plates are moving in the Korean peninsula. While change is in the air, Mr Xi will warn Mr Kim to show prudence given downside risks that the North-South dialogue ultimately proves a mirage which would see Mr Trump increasing pressure on Pyongyang again.

  • The writer is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics