In an unusual diplomatic turn of events, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has traveled to China four times in roughly nine months to meet with President Xi Jinping. Conspicuously, Xi has not visited the neighboring country once.
It could be that Kim feels he has no choice: With a second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump possibly in the works, Kim is likely desperate for assurances of support from the Chinese leadership.
During the latest talks with Xi, held earlier in January, Kim reiterated that Pyongyang is "sticking to the stance of denuclearization" and expressed his enthusiasm about the next meeting with Trump. Xi, meanwhile, expressed his support for the planned U.S.-North Korea talks, according to reports by Chinese state and other media.
All three of the previous meetings between Kim and Xi took place just before or after important U.S.-North Korea talks. It stands to reason, therefore, that the latest Kim-Xi meeting will expedite preparations by Washington and Pyongyang for a second Kim-Trump summit.
All of this diplomatic maneuvering is set against the backdrop of the nuclear threat that North Korea continues to pose, even if there has been an easing of tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Referring to a possible summit with Trump during his talks with Xi, Kim said the two leaders would strive to "achieve results that will be welcomed by the international community." What the international community wants to see is Pyongyang's complete renunciation of nuclear weapons and for the North Korean regime to present a clear road map for becoming a nuclear-free nation.
During their latest talks, Kim told Xi he intends to prioritize economic development -- which is why it was probably no coincidence that the North Korean leader used the occasion to visit Beijing's Economic-Technological Development Area. He likely wanted to send the message that Pyongyang's goals are economic, not military, thereby prompting the international community to ease the noose of international sanctions strangling the North Korean regime.
Xi, of course, has his own reasons for meeting with Kim so frequently. China may be seeking to play its apparent unity with North Korea as a trump card in its trade war negotiations with Washington. That, however, would be wrong. Neither the U.S. nor China, both of which wield influence over North Korea, should use a matter of national security as a bargaining tool in their economic conflict. These two superpowers share a mutual interest in denuclearizing North Korea and therefore have a duty to cooperate in establishing stability on the Korean Peninsula.
During their talks, Kim asked Xi to help push for a "comprehensive resolution of the Korean Peninsula issue." In other words, Pyongyang wants the sanctions to be lifted and relevant countries to declare an official end to the 1950-53 Korean War and conclude a peace agreement. The international community must work together to ensure that none of the North's wishes come true as long Pyongyang fails to take firm strides toward denuclearization.
In this, Japan has an important role to play. Until recently, Japan, the U.S. and South Korea have coordinated their diplomatic policy toward North Korea. But given that South Korea has clearly begun to put greater emphasis on reconciliation with the North, Japan needs to keep the Trump administration from pushing ahead with an ambiguous deal with Pyongyang over the nuclear issue. By playing a leading role in the denuclearization push, Japan will be better positioned to help establish a new order on the Korean Peninsula and resume talks on normalizing diplomatic ties with North Korea.