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How China’s relationship with North Korea could complicate a Trump-Kim meeting

Kim’s visit to Beijing this week, including a photo op with China’s newly confirmed leader-for-life Xi Jingping, could change a whole lot of calculations.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Chinese President Xi Jinping shaking hands at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, during their March 2018 meeting.
Ju Peng/Xinhua

About that dramatic summit meeting President Trump is eager to have with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un? It might be time to slow-walk that one.

Kim’s visit to Beijing this week, including a photo op with China’s newly confirmed leader-for-life Xi Jinping, could change a whole lot of calculations. In general, it’s still a good idea to talk to the North Koreans – it just doesn’t need to be Trump, and it doesn’t need to be now. Before charging off to a make-or-break meeting, it makes sense to figure out what just happened, think through the implications, and get a new foreign policy team (yes, including John Bolton) in place.

China in general, and Xi in particular, are not fond of Kim, who has shown little inclination to heed Chinese wishes. China isn’t keen on an unpredictable, nuclear-armed North Korea, either. If threats and economic sanctions have pushed the two of them closer together again, on balance that’s a good thing. It makes a conflict – nuclear or otherwise – less likely and (if you believe China’s version of what Kim said) raises the possibility of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. But it creates a whole range of other challenges.

Instead of playing poker against someone who might be crazy – or crazy like a fox – Trump will find himself playing a more complicated game for which he’s so far shown neither the patience nor the aptitude. It will take time, plus good intelligence and diplomatic work to help figure out what’s behind that handshake between Kim and Xi. They didn’t really look like best of buddies.

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Xi is certainly pursuing what he perceives to be China’s self-interest. That is stability in East Asia, which gives China an opportunity to slowly expand its influence and diminish the U.S. role. The question is how North Korea plays into that project.

China doesn’t want a new Korean war. That would only draw the Americans in deeper. For China, Kim would ideally behave badly enough to keep Washington occupied, but not badly enough to turn off the South Koreans. After his meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on April 27, he’ll need to keep the dialogue going.

China has been courting South Korea for a while now. Over time, it might be possible to pull Seoul and its strong economy out of Washington’s orbit.

The Chinese – and Kim – also are probably thinking that if he gets Trump alone in a room, Kim can offer a deal that sounds too good to pass it up. The president jumped at Kim’s offer of a meeting, and appears eager to pursue it. He’d love an agreement that makes it look as though Kim blinked. Sure, it would be a good thing if Kim agreed to give up his nuclear program. But even if he offers that, he’s going to ask a lot in return. If it works at all, it will be a long, messy process.

Let’s assume, though, that Kim does blink. That doesn’t mean China blinked. If China has forced its way back into the picture here, North Korea becomes one more lever to use in its relationship with Washington. You can just about hear the Chinese reminding you how difficult it is to control Kim, and hinting that how hard they try depends on your attitude regarding whatever today’s issue happens to be.

North Korea becomes one consideration in the bigger game of long-term strategy with China. Military action is probably off the table.

The recent appointment of Bolton as national security adviser has a lot of people scared half to death. There is a list of countries he thinks could be improved by adding a few bomb craters, and he’s made the case for a preemptive strike on North Korea. But it’s one thing to contemplate military action against a country like Iraq or Iran without a major power standing behind it. It’s quite another when you add China into the mix.

So the best course is to be watchful and prepare for the long haul. Maybe Kim was just telling the Chinese what they wanted to hear, and he’ll be just as much of a pain – to everyone – when he’s settled in back home. Time will tell.

In the meantime, he’s unlikely to be doing more missile tests. He might keep working on his nuclear program. The U.S. will certainly be keeping an eye on that, and debriefing the South Koreans on their meeting with Kim. Diplomats and intelligence operatives will be working overtime to try to figure out what just happened in Beijing.

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There is no secretary of state right now. More than a quarter of the way through Trump’s presidency, there still isn’t an ambassador to South Korea, for heaven’s sake. Those jobs need to be filled. When they are, if things still seem to be heading in the right direction, let them slowly build up to a summit with lower-level meetings that clarify issues and help set an agenda.

The last thing the country needs is for the president to go in, unprepared and solo, against an adversary who is neither.