Kim's visit to China signals growing bond between two nations
However, the North Korean leader has chosen to spend his birthday with Chinese president Xi Jinping, Mr Trump’s greatest geopolitical opponent.
Awks much? Slightly, but Mr Kim’s train ride to Beijing is still good news for the US president, as Mr Kim makes the trip to China before important summits (this is his fourth to the country).
His presence in Beijing is a sign that serious preparations are underway for the second Trump-Kim summit, which Mr Trump has said will happen soon.
Also on board the armour-plated, luxury train was Kim Yong-chol, the former spy chief who has been heading negotiations with US secretary of state Mike Pompeo – negotiations that haven’t got very far to date.
What might Mr Kim and Mr Xi be talking about?
The regimes of Beijing and Pyongyang are almost as inscrutable as each other but in this case, we have a fairly good idea, thanks to Kim Jong Un’s New Year address.
In that televised speech, Mr Kim reiterated his pledge that North Korea would neither make and test nuclear weapons any longer nor use and proliferate them.
But he also warned: “We even might find ourselves in a situation where we have no other choice but to find a new way”.
Does that mean more missile launches and nuclear tests?
Frank Ruediger, professor of east Asian economy and society at the University of Vienna, argues not.
Writing on 38 North, a website devoted to analysis about North Korea, earlier this month, he said: “Kim’s confidence stems from the expectation of growing and reliable support by China.”
That confidence seems to be well founded.
Global Times, a Chinese state-run newspaper, today quoted an unnamed expert saying that Mr Kim’s “visit to China at the beginning of 2019 indicates Kim’s trust in China”.
“Kim still believes China can help him make breakthroughs in internal and diplomatic situations,” the newspaper said.
There are two ways of interpreting all that.
Firstly, that North Korea can exploit its new, better diplomatic relationship with the US to ask for more from China – to play the two superpowers off against each other.
This is a strategy that China itself successfully adopted during the Cold War, alternatively drawing closer to the US and the Soviet Union to extract concessions from them.
Secondly, that China might use its influence with North Korea as leverage in its own trade war with the US.
Either way, North Korea benefits.
The background of the trade war cannot be ignored: a US negotiating team is also in Beijing trying to reach an agreement before 1 March, when increased tariffs are scheduled to kick in. Both sides seem keener than they have previously been to settle the issue.
Mr Trump likes to think that all it takes to make a breakthrough on North Korea is another one-on-one meeting with Kim. Sod geopolitics, forget the boring details: personal charisma will win through.
Mr Kim’s visit to Beijing shows how much more complicated it actually is.
The year 2019 promised to be a big one for East Asia and for the world, and it’s already delivering.
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