In late March, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who had not stepped foot outside the hermit kingdom since taking power in 2011, traveled to Beijing to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping for the first time. The encounter came amid two decades of declining relations between North Korea and China, with its worst period yet under Xi—only six high-level bilateral exchanges had taken place over the past six years, compared to 54 during the presidency of his predecessor, Hu Jintao.
As I previously argued in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs, Beijing had grown wary of Kim’s provocations and was “no longer wedded to North Korea’s survival.” It was remarkable, then, that Xi had extended the invitation to Kim. Has there been a sudden thaw in diplomatic relations? And if so, what does this apparent reversal signify?
On the surface, Xi appears driven by a desire for improved Sino–North Korean relations. During the Xi-Kim meeting, the Chinese media portrayed their two countries as ideological comrades, emphasizing their common interest in finding a peaceful solution to the security challenges on the peninsula and publishing photos of the two leaders sharing a warm embrace. But although the summit signals Beijing’s interest in pursuing productive relations with Pyongyang, Xi’s decision to meet with Kim represents less of a strategic shift than appearances might suggest. China is still not wedded to North Korea’s survival, and the countries’ “alliance” continues to be only in name. For Beijing, the ultimate goal of the meeting was not to patch up the relationship with Pyongyang but to shape the direction of upcoming U.S.–North Korean talks and to ensure that any outcome favors Chinese interests over those of the United States.
NEW ENVIRONMENT, NEW STRATEGY
Over the past few years, relations between Beijing and Pyongyang had deteriorated to the point where Chinese strategists and even military officers were suggesting that China might not take North Korea’s side in the event
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