Wednesday morning (Tuesday night in the U.S.), a day after Kim Jong Un returned to North Korea from China, the two countries confirmed that he was in Beijing. The train and motorcades everyone saw were, as many people suspected, for him. In its initial report, the Chinese news agency Xinhua said Kim told Chinese President Xi Jinping that he is committed to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and willing to hold a summit with President Trump.
So that’s confirmation of what the South Korean envoys conveyed to Trump on March 8. Good news on the face of it.
But there’s no more context or explanation of the interaction between Kim and Xi. And so Beijing hasn’t changed the fundamental problem that so many have pointed out: that Kim’s ideas of denuclearization aren’t Washington’s. Duyeon Kim noted this almost the moment that Trump agreed to meet Kim. (Seriously, how fast she cranked that piece) And others have here and here and I could find more. It’s just axiomatic among Korea watchers that the U.S. and North Korea have different ideas about what denuclearizing means. Jeffrey Lewis called BS on this almost as quickly as Duyeon did and then raised the specter of what Trump will do when he figures it out.
And yet, we have no less than the foreign minister of South Korea and the incoming Secretary of State peddling Kim’s willingness to talk about denuclearization as something new and apparently meaning what Trump and most Americans think it means. The reporters interviewing them did not press them on this. (You don’t see the big figures in Seoul subjecting themselves to the Choes, Fifields and Chengs of the world.)
South Korea and China, in driving for these talks, (and maybe Pompeo in supporting his boss) appear to be glossing over North Korea’s intentions. Xinhua portrays Kim as telling Xi, “If South Korea and the United States respond with good will to our efforts and create an atmosphere of peace and stability, and take phased, synchronized measures to achieve peace, the issue of the denuclearization of the peninsula can reach resolution.”
The skeptics emerged immediately. Here’s Abraham Denmark from the Kissinger Institute on Twitter:
As expected, Kim is not willing to denuclearize. Will likely offer to put limits on NK’s capability/capacity in exchange for recognition and other concessions. Full denuclearization likely tied to the end of the US-ROK alliance & withdrawal of US forces. https://t.co/lSPYAWN1nY
— Abraham M. Denmark (@AbeDenmark) March 28, 2018
And so we’re left seeing that the amount of water-carrying for Pyongyang by Seoul and Beijing is huge. Just look at how Kim’s trip played out. The media figured out he was there, not instantly but they got it. And yet, the Chinese refused to say he was until the day after he left. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said it had no information, prompting this explanation from Dan Pinkston of the International Crisis Group:
The foreign ministry is the wrong institution to ask. Of course they would not know. The CCP International Department would handle the details of the visit given party-to-party relations between two nominal socialist states.
— Daniel Pinkston (@dpinkston) March 27, 2018
Understood. And yet, what other world leader gets to traipse around Beijing like that? Kim’s father is the only one I can think of.