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Xi Jinping and his wife attended a “rare performance” by a troupe of 280 North Korean singers and dancers in Beijing on January 27, and the couple even appeared onstage. Xi’s endorsement of the event—the show celebrated the seventieth anniversary of relations between the neighbors—is not a good omen for the upcoming second summit between President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un.
China insists on being part of the discussions to “denuclearize” North Korea. Yet it is a malign actor, largely responsible for the international community needing these negotiations in the first place. Chinese entities have continually supplied components, equipment, and materials for the North’s nuclear weapons program and critical equipment and undoubtedly technology for its ballistic missile efforts.
China has extended, over the course of decades, diplomatic protection and a critical cash lifeline for the Kim regime. Beijing is a serial sanctions violator. Chinese diplomats have been intimidating South Korea into not defending itself from the threat of North Korean missiles, a threat the Chinese helped create.
Beijing is unlikely to suddenly reverse decades-old policy supporting the North.
In 2017, Trump sought China’s help. He learned his lesson fast, however. Last March, he cut Beijing out by declaring his willingness to talk to the North directly.
Since March, Chinese diplomats have been scrambling to make themselves relevant. They grabbed a role when Xi summoned Kim to Chinese soil three times last year and one more time last month.
Zhang Yun of the Beijing Foreign Studies University writes in Global Times, the Communist Party tabloid, that Kim went to Beijing in January because “China has repeatedly expressed support for the North Korean pursuit of its legitimate security needs.”
Actually, it’s unlikely that Kim, the self-professed Korean nationalist, would make himself appear to be a Chinese vassal by continually trekking to Beijing when Xi Jinping has made no return visit to Pyongyang.
Xi also demonstrates his relevance with what James Floyd Downes of the Chinese University of Hong Kong calls “power plays.”
“Such power plays,” he notes in comments to the South China Morning Post, “will make it increasingly difficult for the Trump administration to make meaningful progress in negotiations with Pyongyang.”
So don’t expect too much when Trump next meets Kim. China wants influence and hopes to intimidate Trump. Sometimes, China’s brand of intimidation takes the form of its leader attending a song and dance performance in grand Beijing.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.