Kim seeks China’s backing ahead of S. Korea, U.S. summits

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un likely went to China to solicit President Xi Jinping's support ahead of his meetings with the South Korean and U.S. leaders, analysts said.

The unannounced visit was confirmed by Pyongyang and Beijing early Wednesday (local time) after rumors swirled of a high-ranking North Korean official's train trip.

The four-day trip that began Sunday was Kim's first overseas travel since he took power upon his father and then-leader Kim Jong-il's death in late 2011. It came at a critical diplomatic juncture in the deadlock over North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

Upon Kim's assurance that he is committed to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, U.S. President Donald Trump accepted his offer to meet and expressed his desire to do so by May.

Before that bombshell announcement, Kim also agreed to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in late April.

"Kim Jong-un's relationship with China has been very strained, but he may have felt it necessary to coordinate with Beijing before summit meetings with Seoul and Washington," Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation, said in comments to Yonhap.

He noted that Kim Jong-il also traveled to China before his own meetings with South Korean leaders.

China has been North Korea's biggest political ally and economic lifeline, but their ties have deteriorated over the junior Kim's purging of key officials close to China, as well as his nuclear and ballistic missile testing.

"North Korea's agreement to engage Presidents Moon and Trump meets longstanding Chinese objectives for a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear crisis," Klingner said.

"China would also be pleased that talk of a U.S. preventive attack on North Korea has been muted" since Pyongyang initiated talks with Seoul earlier this year, he noted.

Ken Gause, a North Korea expert who is director of the International Affairs Group at CNA Corp., agreed it was necessary for Kim to meet with Xi before the other two summits to discuss strategy, explain Pyongyang's position and way ahead, and secure Beijing's buy in.

"To skip this step would have been a slap in the face of North Korea's only remaining patron," he said. "The answer that Kim Jong-un received will determine how flexible he can be in his talks with the United States, especially."

If Xi gave his support, Kim "might feel more emboldened to push his position in talks with the U.S.," he said, noting the North would at most accept a freeze on nuclear and missile testing -- not complete denuclearization -- in exchange for economic and security incentives.

"This would be a step by step (or phase by phase) process that in time could include verification and other denuclearization measures after a period of confidence building on both sides," according to Gause.

Kim could receive a further boost in his negotiations with Washington, if China, and possibly Russia, provide assurances they would ease international sanctions against the regime, he added.

China and Russia -- two permanent, veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council -- backed a series of sanctions resolutions against Pyongyang in response to its sixth nuclear test and three intercontinental ballistic missile launches last year.

Kim's visit to Beijing suggests he is "looking to beef up Beijing's support in the lead-up to the potential summit with Trump and also to try to gauge how far Chinese leaders might go on sanctions implementation," said Jung Pak, a former Central Intelligence Agency official who works as a Korea expert at the Brookings Institution.

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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