March 30, 2018

IntelBrief: The Special Relationship Between China and North Korea  

People watch a news program on TV reporting about the meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, March 28, 2018.  (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man).
  • On March 26, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made his first head-of-state visit, traveling by train to China.
  • The unexpected meeting between Kim Jong-un and Chinese premier Xi Jinping is a sign of China’s pivotal role in resolving the tensions between North Korea and the West.
  • After a year of heightened tensions between North Korea and the United States, there is finally the prospect of effective dialogue.
  • The upcoming April meeting between Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in is to be followed by a meeting with Kim Jong-un and President Trump in May.


Traveling as his father and grandfather did before him, secretly and in an armored train, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made a surprise visit to China on March 26, the first time he has met with another head of state since taking office in 2011. He met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, who has consolidated power to a level not seen in China since the days of Mao Zedong. The two men discussed the tensions between North Korea and the West—and China and the West—with President Xi saying ‘there have been promising changes in the situation on the Korean Peninsula, and we express our appreciation for the major efforts that North Korea has made in this regard.’

Relations between China and North Korea have been strained since the beginning of Jong-un’s rule. Pyongyang’s very public pursuit of nuclear weapons, with its high-profile tests and bombastic rhetoric, led China to support the strongest sanctions ever applied to North Korea. While Beijing’s ability to influence Pyongyang is often overstated, it does hold meaningful leverage and influence overall, as seen by this visit. Both countries’ state media portrayed their respective leader in the best possible light—with Pyongyang portraying Jong-un as a confident peer of Xi—but the visit highlights the power dynamic that is obviously far in China’s favor.

Along with strengthening ties with China, the surprise visit appears to have been, in part, preparation for Jong-un’s two upcoming meetings: an April meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on the border between the two countries, and a possible May meeting with United States President Donald Trump, though the details of such a meeting are still unknown. The relative thawing of relations between North Korea and South Korea and the U.S. comes after a year of dramatic tensions. At its worst moments, the possibility of military conflict between the U.S. and North Korea over its nuclear weapons program seemed almost inevitable. Some contend the hardline taken by the Trump administration—from Twitter taunts to bomber overflights—has made possible high-level discussions to peacefully resolve what has become a serious global issue. Others state that North Korea is now making overtures because it is a de facto nuclear power, engaging with the U.S. from a position of relative strength. Still, the prospect of talks is a welcome one.

The Chinese state media outlet Xinhua released a summary of the meeting between Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un, and included what would be a hugely significant development if true: according to Xinhua, Kim Jong-un stated ‘If South Korea and the United States respond with good will to our efforts and create an atmosphere of peace and stability, and take phased, synchronized measures to achieve peace, the issue of the denuclearization of the peninsula can reach resolution.’ A denuclearized North Korea has not been considered a realistic goal by many, and it is uncertain what exactly Kim Jong-un means with this statement. However, it is safe to assume the next two months will be among the most important in the long-running crisis between North Korea and its neighbors and the U.S.


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