After North Korea leader Kim Jong-Un met with Chinese President (for life?) Xi Jinping this week, it’s hard not to imagine that the two had a long conversation about Kim’s pending meeting with President Donald Trump. What did they discuss? Was Xi urging Kim to reconcile with America, or giving him pointers on how to embarrass Trump and the Yankees? Both Xi and Kim turned their meeting into public relations victories for themselves. And President Trump attempted to do the same.
For its part the Trump administration has tried to play up the significant bravery of the president, pointing out that no one else in the White House has been willing to meet with a North Korean leader. At the same time, the administration has stressed that the meeting is just a “talk” and not a negotiation. That’s an effort to downplay what may come out of a meeting in which old negotiating lines may be hard to cross.
The scary part of any North Korean talk is the shadow of China in the background. While China may not have explicitly helped North Korea obtain nuclear weapons, the country’s leadership has given the Hermit kingdom an implicit go ahead by refusing to forcefully rebuke the Kim dynasty. Will China use its influence in North Korea to kill an agreement, or do the Chinese prefer a pacified North Korea?
Talks with North Korea are certainly preferable to mutual belligerence. American presidents have failed for decades to make headway. A successful mission by President Trump to denuclearize North Korea could be his greatest diplomatic triumph. The question is, will China set the president up to fail, or will Xi Jinping play along to help deescalate the tension in its own sphere of influence?