When Kim Jong-un quietly visited China over the weekend, it created a few powerful images. It was one of those moments when it feels like the game has been changed, and one of the key players is outplayed.
The message seemed clear; nobody is waiting for Donald Trump to make a deal. Not only does North Korea and China dispute Trump’s reputation as a dealmaker, they outright don’t need him to be present when deciding the fate of the region.
The friendly meeting between Mr Kim and Chinese president Xi Jinping highlighted the long standing relationship between Pyongyang and Beijing. After all both countries have been military allies since the end of the Korean War, where China intervened against the Western Forces and forced the United States to retreat.
China’s intervention helped turn the tide in a war that has never truly ended. While there is an armistice in place the border between North and South Korea is heavily militarised and there are tends of thousands of US troops stationed there.
Recently, Trump expressed he did not like the idea of US troops being stationed in South Korea, a showing of hand that is likely to weaken him in upcoming summits with North Korea. Certainly both North Korea and China would be happy to see American soldiers leave the region.
With North Korea on a constant war footing and being affected by international sanctions, China is its only lifeline. China accounts for over 90% of North Korea’s total trade revenue and is the country’s biggest supplier of fuel and energy.
Despite this close, almost parasitic relationship, North Korea has not always stayed on good terms with China. An example is the routine nuclear and ballistic missile testing that Kim Jong-un, until recently, seemed determined to continue.
China has seemed to side with the UN in matters relating the nuclear disarmament and has shown concern over North Korea destabilising the Korean Peninsula. Certainly, China fears the collapse of Jong-un regime which would send huge volumes of North Koreans spilling into China.
While China fears North Korea becoming a nuclear superpower, they also fear the collapse of the regime in general. It appears, with these recent talks, that China wants to gentrify North Korea over a long period, keeping it well-behaved.
In these coming talks with Donald Trump, North Korea will certainly benefit from having China on its side. China simply needs to make sure that it maintains the same careful pressure it has applied on Pyongyang without tipping it over the edge into chaos.