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Kim Returns to China, This Time With Leverage

BEIJING — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un arrived in Beijing on Tuesday amid an escalating trade conflict between China and the United States, one that gives him an opening to play the powers against each other as Washington presses him to dismantle his nuclear arsenal.

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Jane Perlez
, New York Times

BEIJING — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un arrived in Beijing on Tuesday amid an escalating trade conflict between China and the United States, one that gives him an opening to play the powers against each other as Washington presses him to dismantle his nuclear arsenal.

“This could be regarded as an intuitive response to Trump’s escalation of the trade war,” Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, said of China’s invitation to Kim.

The surprise trip, just a week after his landmark summit meeting in Singapore with President Donald Trump, is the North Korean leader’s third visit to China since March. His two-day trip was announced by Xinhua, China’s official news agency, as Kim was arriving Tuesday morning; his previous stops in China were not made public until after they were over.

For his first one, in March — which was also his first trip abroad and his first meeting with a head of state since becoming the North’s leader — Kim arrived in Beijing aboard an armored train and he spent two days in the capital for talks with President Xi Jinping. In May, Kim visited the port city of Dalian, also spending time with Xi.

This time, Kim arrived much as any other foreign leader might, landing at Beijing’s international airport and taking a stretch limousine to the city center.

Xinhua’s report gave no details of the agenda for Kim’s visit. But he was likely to deliver a personal briefing about what happened behind closed doors during three hours of talks with Trump last week, the first meeting ever between leaders of the United States and North Korea.

Andrei Lankov, a Russian expert on North Korea who has lived in the North and still has ties there, said Kim would be seeking to take advantage of the trade conflict between the United States and China, deepening their rivalry to ensure they do not join forces against him, as they did last year on the United Nations sanctions over his weapons program.

“He wants to further disrupt the united China-U.S. front, which somewhat surprisingly emerged last year, but now is in critical condition due to the trade war,” Lankov said.

Kim is turning out to be a “very good diplomat,” Lankov said. “Like his late grandfather, Kim Il Sung, he might even learn how to outsmart the Chinese. The Americans under Trump was an unbelievably easy job.”

For its part, China would like Kim to pull back a bit on the bonhomie he showed Trump in Singapore, analysts in Asia said.

China, they said, sees the trade dispute with Washington as a more serious threat than Kim’s nuclear arsenal. When Kim and Trump were threatening each other’s countries with destruction last year, it gave China, as the North’s main ally and trading partner, leverage with Trump on trade.

Now, the analysts say, China would like Kim to be a little less cooperative with the United States — enough so that Trump might ease up on the tariffs, in the interest of keeping China in his corner where Pyongyang is concerned.

“China will try to use Kim to restore leverage over Trump, but there is no reason for Kim to play along and throw away all the things he has gained in Singapore, including direct talks with the U.S.,” said Bilahari Kausikan, a former foreign secretary of Singapore. “Kim wants to talk directly with the U.S.; why should he let China back into that equation?”

Essentially, Kausikan said, Trump is using Kim against China and Kim is using China against the U.S. president. “It’s a triangular relationship, with Kim in the middle,” he said.

Kim’s visit Tuesday seemed to indicate that relations between the neighboring states were warming after recent years of strain as the young leader accelerated the country’s nuclear and missile programs.

China has backed U.N. sanctions against North Korea, but it has also recently indicated it is willing to offer economic assistance — a move some see as intended to anger Washington.

In the joint declaration they signed in Singapore, Trump and Kim pledged to move ahead with the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. But the wording of the agreement was vague and included no clear timelines. The Americans insist that international sanctions will remain in place until Pyongyang completely dismantles its nuclear program.

But China has suggested that the Singapore meeting alone was a goodwill measure that should prompt the easing of those penalties. Lankov said that in his visit this week, Kim would be trying to find ways to defuse the sanctions’ pressure without openly flouting them. This could be done by sending North Korean workers to China on nonworkers’ visas, for example.

Kim has promised his people dramatic economic growth and China is well positioned to advise the North on how to transform a rural economy into a modern one, experts said. A delegation of North Korean provincial leaders visited China recently to inspect major cities where they saw glimmering skyscrapers and high-speed trains.

Kim has yet to visit most of China, but even its most advanced cities might pale in comparison to Singapore, where he spent a night inspecting the skyline and visiting a high-end casino complex.

China may propose some easing of sanctions and the opening of “a back door” to economic assistance, said Kim Byung-yeon, a professor at Seoul National University and author of a recent book, “Unveiling the North Korean Economy.”

But China should not risk its international reputation by going too far, Kim said. “Sanctions were designed to bring the North to the negotiating table, and they came, but it’s not clear whether they want to negotiate or buy time,” Kim said.

“If China wants to let up pressure on North Korea now, that would be a bad move,” he added. “They agreed to sanctions for the purpose of denuclearization. If they provide resources now, that is incompatible with their role at the U.N.”

After six years of never venturing abroad and rarely accepting foreign visitors to his capital, Pyongyang, Kim almost appears to be making up for lost time.

In addition to his Singapore meeting with Trump, he has been to South Korea twice this year. President Vladimir Putin has asked him to visit Russia in September, and after Trump said he “absolutely” planned to invite Kim to the White House, North Korea’s news media said Kim would accept.

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