With smiles and firm handshakes, North Korea and China used a surprise summit this week to show that despite recent tensions, Pyongyang still has a powerful backer and Beijing will not be sidelined in discussions about the fate of its unpredictable neighbor. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s secretive talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing appear aimed at improving both countries’ positions ahead of Kim’s anticipated meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump in the coming weeks. A key objective for Beijing is to reassert its relevance to the upcoming talks, from which it has been excluded. China has appeared increasingly shut out as its relations with the North deteriorated and Pyongyang reached out to Seoul and Washington.
“Kim Jong Un’s visit shows that China is not marginalized, but playing a leading role. This saves China a lot of face,” said Pang Zhongying, a North Korea expert at Renmin University in Beijing. Official reports from both countries on Wednesday depicted in effusive terms warm ties between the two leaders in an effort to downplay recent tensions over Kim’s development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. In the reports, “Kim reaffirms the traditional friendship between the two countries as if nothing had ever happened, when the relationship had plummeted to unprecedented lows,” said Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.