Kim Jong-un’s New Year address and fourth visit to Beijing quickly put Pyongyang back in the spotlight in 2019. His meeting with Xi Jinping also likely foreshadowed a meeting with President Trump in the near future. On this episode of the China in the World podcast, Paul Haenle spoke with Tong Zhao, a fellow at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, on the implications of Kim’s New Year address and meeting with Xi Jinping, as well as the outlook for North Korea’s relations with China and the United States in 2019.

Zhao said Kim’s threats to take a “new path” if the U.S. does not lift sanctions does not mean a return to nuclear and missile tests. Instead, Pyongyang will likely strengthen ties with Beijing, departing from its focus on balancing relations between the United States and China. Zhao agreed with Haenle that the North Korea nuclear problem is not solved, as President Trump has claimed. North Korea appears committed to maintaining its intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear programs. The fundamental barrier preventing progress on denuclearization is that Pyongyang will not trust any U.S. security guarantees, as such commitments are reversible. Instead, Zhao argued for a long-term process that builds trust and transforms the relationship from hostile to friendly. The Kim-Xi relationship is one of convenience, rather than actual friendship, Zhao said. As Kim prepares for a second summit with Trump, he is not confident he can secure sanctions relief and is more willing to cozy up to Beijing. However, building a long-term relationship with the United States remains Kim’s priority. Washington’s support is key to lifting UN sanctions that prevent the North Korean economy from developing quickly. Zhao said China supports a second meeting between Trump and Kim because there is real hope that it could lead to actual progress on a deal. However, if the meeting does not go well, China is likely to blame the United States for not accommodating North Korean demands, widening the gap between Washington and Beijing during a delicate period in the relationship. If the situation on the Korean Peninsula deteriorates, China might even accuse the United States of deliberately precipitating a crisis to advance its own interests in the region.

Paul Haenle

Paul Haenle holds the Maurice R. Greenberg Director’s Chair at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy based at Tsinghua University in Beijing. His research focuses on Chinese foreign policy and U.S.-China relations.

Tong Zhao

Tong Zhao is a fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, based at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing. His research focuses on strategic security issues, including nuclear weapons strategy, arms control, nonproliferation, missile defense, hypersonic weapons, space security, and other international security issues.