If indeed 10,000 people had assembled with flowers at Pyongyang airport to greet Xi Jinping, it was an exceptional grandstanding for China’s President-for-life, his wife, Peng Liyuan, the foreign minister, Wang Yi, and other officials.
Despite the ideological affinity between North Korea and China, it is fairly obvious that Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping have initiated an essay towards what they call “rebooting a troubled alliance” not the least because both countries face their own challenges from the likes of Donald Trump.
Xi’s visit has been the first by a Chinese leader to North Korea in 14 years. Though allies during the high noon of the Cold War, relations have of late deteriorated over Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions and missile tests and Beijing’s subsequent endorsement of UN sanctions.
Though the upshot of the meeting is still rather fogbound ~ Xinhua has not provided details ~ it can reasonably be assumed that North Korea’s nuclear programme has dominated the discourse at the high table. This is particularly critical in the context of the failure of Kim’s second denuclearisation summit with Donald Trump, when the South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, had played the honest broker, but to little or no effect. In an unprecedented gesture for a visiting leader, Xi was shown around the Kumsusan Palace mausoleum, where the preserved bodies of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung, and his successor, Kim Jongil ~ respectively the grandfather and father of the present leader ~ lie in state. For Pyongyang, the emotive construct is no less critical than the occasional Big Bang in the Pacific, with one missile capable of striking mainland America.
For both China and North Korea, history has been etched in stone, and it cannot be overshadowed by the contretemps of geopolitics. Xi is expected to pay homage at Pyongyang’s Friendship Tower, a monument to the Chinese troops who saved North Korea from defeat during the Korean war. Xi’s visit takes place amidst “complex international relations”, underlining the “high importance” that the country attaches to its ties with North Korea. “Our people are proud of having a trustworthy and close friend like the Chinese people,” is the fervent response of Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of North Korea’s ruling party.
Above all, the Xi-Kim summit emits a signal to Washington that it should stop its maximum-pressure posture. Equally in recent years, China has sought to convey to the world that it does not wholly approve of North Korea’s belligerence towards the West. The occasional tut-tutting becomes still more relevant after the two summits were reduced to a fizzle, strengthening Pyongyang’s resolve to test yet more missiles. Xi is reported to have suggested that China could play a role in bridging the gap between North Korea and the US over denuclearisation.
The jaw-jaw must go beyond optics.