Kim Jong-un plus China may equal trouble

After years of being essentially a hermit holed up in his palaces, North Korean despot Kim Jong-un is turning into something of an international tourist. After finishing up his meetings with President Trump in Singapore, Kim headed to China for official state visits with Xi Jinping. Given their two nations’ close relations in the past, this probably shouldn’t come as too much of a shock, but their friendly meeting could spell serious problems for American efforts to drag North Korea to the table and force Kim to actually abandon his nuclear weapons program. And as CNN was reporting last night, Kim may have something up his sleeve.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ended a celebratory visit to China’s President Xi Jinping on Wednesday with tea, praise, handshakes — and a message for the US.

Amid lingering questions over Pyongyang’s willingness to denuclearize and an escalating trade war between the US and China, Kim’s trip reinforced the idea that Beijing remains a key player — a variable that President Donald Trump needs and yet one that remains outside his control.

Administration officials have said that they will maintain sanctions on North Korea even as talks continue, and stand ready to intensify that economic pressure should Pyongyang fail to cooperate. But China, North Korea’s biggest trading partner, ultimately has power over whether sanctions on Pyongyang truly bite.

Many of us have worried all along that Kim might be preparing to not only jack us up on the denuclearization deal but to reveal some three-dimensional chess move that the White House didn’t see coming. As a general rule, any time you see the North Korean leader smiling you should probably check and make sure you still have your wallet.

This could be Kim’s big move if he’s drinking fine wine with Xi Jinping and toasting their future, joint prosperity. It probably wouldn’t be as big of a deal if we weren’t currently involved in a trade war with the Chinese. Up until now, they’ve been content to essentially trade tariffs in a tit-for-tat fashion. But if we’re pushing China too far, they could come strolling out of a meeting in Pyongyang and say that Kim has agreed to denuclearization “over the next two decades” and that’s good enough, so all, or at least most of the Chinese sanctions are lifted. At that point, our bargaining position collapses. It all hinges on how long China is willing to participate in keeping up the pressure on them.

It’s not that President Trump couldn’t or didn’t see this coming. It was always a risk. Increased American sanctions and UN cooperation with the agenda certainly went a long way towards getting Kim to talk reasonably, but in the past, his family has always been able to rely on China to toss them a lifeline. It was only when China really began cracking down that the pressure became too much for Kim to bear. If he can use all of the good headlines he’s been receiving for the past few weeks to convince the Chinese to lighten up the pressure, North Korea suddenly has a stronger hand to play.

This leaves Donald Trump in a touchy position and I’ll be interested to see how he handles it. He’s generally not one who likes to be seen as “backing down” under any circumstances and he’s made such a point of publicly going after China on the subject of trade deficits that it’s difficult to imagine him doing it now. But if China decides to use the North Korean situation as a bargaining chip, the President may have to decide which of those two foreign policy objectives he really wants to achieve. As Bill Richardson was quoted as saying yesterday, you can have tariffs on China or you can have Chinese cooperation on North Korean sanctions, but you probably can’t have both.

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