Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un paid his third visit to China on Tuesday and Wednesday in just three months - something rarely seen in diplomacy. It reflects frequent exchange of high-level visits between the two countries and an enhanced milieu of mutual trust and friendship. Besides, it is becoming more obvious that Beijing and Pyongyang are working together to deal with global affairs.
When the first time Kim visited China in March, relations between the two countries were facing challenges. There were strains in the fabric of friendship at the time. Kim's first visit was meant to fix the relationship and possibly to open up new prospects for North Korea's diplomacy under the pressure of sanctions.
During his second visit in May, China and North Korea exchanged ideas before Kim went to meet US President Donald Trump in Singapore.
Kim may have come with a four-fold purpose this time to Beijing. First, as China and North Korea share traditional friendship and mutual trust, Kim wanted to report the achievements of the Singapore summit to Chinese President Xi Jinping. According to reports, China speaks highly of the summit and Kim agreed that it achieved good results.
As China is one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC), North Korea may hope that China will help lift sanctions against Pyongyang, which would help recover its economy. Russia showed its attitude during Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's visit to North Korea on May 31. He conveyed Russian President Vladimir Putin's greetings and invited Kim to Russia. Besides, Russia also called for sanctions on North Korea to be lifted, saying that the solution to the nuclear issue can't be comprehensive without sanctions being lifted.
The sanctions have deeply impacted North Korea. For example, UNSC Resolution 2397 limits North Korean import of refined petroleum to 500,000 barrels for each 12-month period and also imposes bans on the export of food, machinery, electrical equipment. The resolution also called for the return of all North Korean nationals earning income abroad within 24 months. Lifting sanctions as soon as possible is a prerequisite for North Korea's economic revival and Pyongyang needs to turn to Beijing for help.
Kim's visit might also foreshadow Pyongyang's shift to economic revival as North Korea has the need to learn from China's experience on establishing special economic zones and reform and opening up. A group from the Workers' Party of Korea visited China on May 16 to observe the country's economy, agriculture and technology. It shows that North Korea is trying to learn the experiences of economic development from other countries. With its current system, it is very much possible that North Korea learns from China and Singapore. China is not only one of North Korea's neighbors, but also has a large economy and shares friendship and great potential in cooperation with North Korea. There is no doubt that North Korea will take economic development as its central task in the future.
As Kim reviewed the traditional friendship between the two countries and looked forward to the future, he might also ask for Beijing's assistance. China is regarded as a powerful backer of North Korea's politics and diplomacy by the foreign media, and Pyongyang may ask for necessary aid as it works toward economic reforms and complete denuclearization. By supporting North Korea, China will promote further peace and stability on the peninsula and help Pyongyang work toward opening up. An open North Korea will be essential for logistics and trade cooperation.
The crux of the regional integration in Northeast Asia is the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue and its peace regime. With China promoting the Belt and Road initiative, North Korea could be an important country connecting Europe in the west and Japan in the east. Kim's visit not only shows North Korea's friendly relations with China, but also reflects the urgent need to consolidate the hard-earned achievements on the peninsula after the Kim-Trump summit.
Kim's third visit to China came as the trade dispute between China and the US escalates. Some observers speculate that China may use improving ties with Pyongyang as a leverage to deal with Sino-US trade disputes. However, although the friendship between China and North Korea will benefit regional cooperation, it should not be over-interpreted. The trade dispute between China and the US will become normal. Meanwhile, peace and stability on the peninsula will promote North Korea's economy and help regional integration in Northeast Asia and even in the Asia-Pacific.
The author is director of the Institute of Northeast Asian studies at the Heilongjiang Academy of Social Sciences. [email protected]