Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How North Korea Benefits From The U.S.-China Trade War


The special train that carries North Korean leader Kim Jong Un left Beijing today. Kim met with Chinese President Xi Jinping. And for the Trump administration, this visit could complicate matters on two fronts - the U.S.-China trade war and discussions to end North Korea's nuclear program. Jung Pak is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center for East Asian Policy Studies and joins us now in the studio. Welcome.

JUNG PAK: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Because of international sanctions, more than 90 percent of North Korea's trade goes through China. And this is the fourth time in less than a year that Kim has visited China. What can you tell us about why he made this trip?

PAK: We can broadly see it as a sign that North Korea wants to revive ties that had really plummeted since he came to power in December 2011. Normally, when we see the North Korean leaders go to Beijing, it's a way to shore up ties, to make sure that Beijing has not abandoned them and to tell the Chinese that they believe in economic reform and development and profess their alliance with each other and to make nice with the Chinese leaders.

SHAPIRO: Explain what is going on in the world, and specifically with the United States, that would make Kim Jong Un want to strengthen ties with China.

PAK: The fact that Kim Jong Un went to Beijing just seven days after in his New Year's speech saying that he's going to continue diplomacy and that he looks forward to meeting with President Trump again, I saw that as bracketing and to preview whatever he's going to discuss with President Trump, so that he can say I have the backing of Beijing, who wants sanctions to be loosened so that we can have peace on the Korean peninsula. And that would bolster Kim's position in advance of the Trump meeting.

SHAPIRO: One description of this meeting that I read described it as a veiled warning to President Trump. Do you think that's true? And if so, what is the warning?

PAK: We can see it as a warning, but shoring up ties to Chinese leaders is a tried and true tactic by North Korean leaders to maintain their support, to get Chinese investment and economic aid and political aid. And so far, that's worked. Last September, China and Russia at the U.N. said we should loosen or lift sanctions because Kim has shown a lot of restraint and that he is engaging in dialogue.

SHAPIRO: So if we look at President Trump's effort to get North Korea to give up its nuclear program, for that to be successful, it will require cooperation and support from China. Does this meeting between the leaders of China and North Korea tell us anything about China's willingness to stand with the United States on this?

PAK: Right. I think for China and the fraught relationship with the United States, it doesn't help that there's a trade issue going on with the U.S. that might hamper its cooperation on North Korea. On the bright side, I would say that Beijing has an interest in prodding and encouraging North Korean denuclearization, so that's where our interests converge. And I think Chinese leaders, for their part, are in no mood to completely lift all the sanctions and all the pressure because Kim Jong Un has been so provocative over the past year and the fact that they just don't trust Kim to begin with.

SHAPIRO: So let's talk about where the trade war fits into all of this because the timing is really interesting. American and Chinese negotiators were talking at the same time that Kim and Xi were meeting. Do you expect this to cause American officials to adjust their approach or respond differently than they might have without this Kim-Xi meeting?

PAK: I don't think so. I think the fact that Kim went so early on in 2019, and reinforcing what he said in the New Year's speech about diplomacy, we should be getting used to these types of visits. Kim's engagement over the past year has been not just about China but about South Korea, potentially Russia and with the United States. And so Kim's visit is not throwing all of his eggs in one basket. We're likely to see meetings with President Moon, maybe a Putin summit that's been talked about.

SHAPIRO: Moon Jae-In of South Korea, yeah.

PAK: That's right. There might be a Putin visit. There might be a Xi Jinping visit to Pyongyang. There are lots of things and opportunities for Kim to practice his hub and spokes model of engagement to try to divide the regional parties and to make sure that there's no unity of action on whatever punishment there is.

SHAPIRO: Jung Pak, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, thanks for coming into the studio today.

PAK: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SHINS SONG, "PINK BULLETS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.