The news coverage and instant analysis from the Xi-Kim summit sorted into these themes:
China is in the game after all, and that’s good for North Korea
This is the conclusion that dominates first-day news coverage, summed up well in the New York Times by Jane Perlez. A key point that she buttressed with comment from a former world leader who happened to be in the region:
Mr. Trump can talk about maintaining “maximum pressure” on the North, but ultimately China — the North’s main trade partner — still decides what that means, because it can choose how strictly to enforce sanctions.
“China is saying to the United States and the rest of the world: Anyone who wants a deal on anything on the future of the Korean Peninsula, and certainly something which deals with nukes, don’t think you can walk around us, guys,” Kevin Rudd, a former Australian prime minister who is on good terms with the Chinese leadership, said in Hong Kong on Wednesday.
The Washington Post hit hard on this, too, and noted Trump himself acknowledged hearing directly from the Chinese by tweeting about it. At the Asia Times, Andrew Salmon raised the prospect that Kim may also head off to Moscow before his summits with South Korea and the U.S. later this spring. (The two Koreas announced on Thursday that the North-South summit will be April 27.)
At CSIS, Victor Cha and Sue Mi Terry gave a minimum/maximum range of possibilities for China’s involvement and backing of North Korea in a possible summit with Trump. At 38North, Yun Sun suggests there was a great deal of anxiety in China about being on the sidelines as Kim and Trump said they’d get together, so the Xi-Kim meeting was fairly critical for Beijing. In his “hot take” at the Lowy website, Robert Kelly points out that China still has lots of leverage over North Korea, though they routinely deny it. “Kim may dislike China, which is also pretty well-established now, but ultimately he felt he needed to run any real shifts by his patron first,” Kelly wrote.
Kim Jong Un has emerged as a forceful, agenda-setting, on-the-stage leader
This was a natural thing to say about Kim’s first meeting with a foreign leader. But it’s also a bit of a strawman if you believe, as I do, that Kim has been setting the agenda all along and the mystery about his agenda is the why of it. Why did he sharply accelerate weapons testing in the past year? Why did he suddenly stop and decide to engage in diplomacy? And more deeply, why is he running his country the way he is? Why does he still believe in “final victory” over South Korea? Why does he keep his borders closed and people cut off?
Trump says the change in the Kim regime’s direction over the past few months is because of his “maximum pressure” strategy and many supporters believe him. The sanctions are stifling, to be sure, and Kim no doubt wants relief. But by getting Beijing involved, (and definitely if Kim meets Putin soon) this whole thing looks more and more like the old cyclical pattern of Pyongyang’s foreign interaction: ratchet up tension and then ease back and talk in hope of relief from penalties and rewards for bargaining.
Jonathan Cheng’s main story in the Journal put a lot of emphasis on this rising-leader theme, then veered into the theme of China’s role.
Victor and Sue Mi, in their CSIS post linked to above, noted the Kim-rising-as-a-leader narrative as a secondary development. “Kim likely hopes the upcoming meeting with Trump will further play into this narrative, allowing Kim to claim that his nuclear forces have won North Korea respect,” they wrote.
Troy Stangerone, writing at the Korea Economic Institute blog, says that Kim’s willingness to travel shows all is well domestically and his grip on power is sure. And this point by Troy also stood out: “It also suggests that sanctions have not yet taken deep hold. If the North Korean economy was in desperate straits, Kim Jong-un would have been unlikely to feel comfortable traveling abroad.”
The sides are talking past each other on denuclearization
As I noted in my last post, China’s disclosures about the Xi-Kim summit did not move the ball on our understanding of what Kim means when he says he’s ready to talk about denuclearization. As I wrote, many people have been saying from the start that this a big stumbling block. Even so, they seem to be whispering against a gale of headlines and lead paragraphs in radio and TV stories and invested officials, all of which keep saying that Kim is willing to talk about getting rid of his nukes while making no mention of caveats or the nuances involved in that.
But Reuters’ Josh Smith took a nice shot by making a whole story out of this. An important excerpt:
The differing interpretations threaten to scuttle potential talks between North Korea and the United States before they begin.
“As we approach the summits, conceptions of denuclearization seem to be diverging rather than converging,” said Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists.
Business Insider made the point, too, in its attention-getting way with the headline “Kim Jong Un became a regional power overnight by saying a single, meaningless word to Trump”. At least that post will crack the idea through to the non-Korea watcher audience.
Daniel Larison, writing at the American Conservative website, became alarmed by Trump’s tweet after the Xi-Kim summit. “There is a very good chance that Trump is once again mistaking boilerplate North Korean rhetoric for a meaningful change in their position,” he wrote.
It seems like some reporters are trying to plumb this with the White House. Late Wednesday from Washington, the Post published a piece that summed up the White House’s “cautious optimism” about a summit between Trump and Kim. It touched on the varying expectations of the two sides but focused mainly on the divergence between Trump’s tweeted optimism and the well-known hawkish views of Bolton and Pompeo.