Tuesday 17 July 2018

Kim Jong Un’s China visit may be start of world travels

Next on the North Korean leader’s list is a meeting just south of the demilitarised zone with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

People watch a TV screen showing images of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump (Ahn Young-joon/AP)
People watch a TV screen showing images of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump (Ahn Young-joon/AP)

By Eric Talmadge, Associated Press

After six years of seclusion, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un seems to want to get out and see the world.

Mr Kim’s surprise summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping this week was the first time he had travelled outside of his country since he assumed power in 2011, according to his own state media.

But Beijing is just the start of his ambitious travel plans.

Next is a meeting just south of the demilitarised zone with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, then the trickiest meeting of all, with US President Donald Trump in an as-yet undisclosed location.

He is also rumoured to be considering a sit-down with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, while one of his staunchest critics, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, says he wants some face time, too.

Why the sudden urge to travel?

Here is a look at where Mr Kim’s been, where he might be headed and what kind of “souvenirs” he will be hoping to gather along the way.

CHINA

In hindsight, this was the obvious choice for Mr Kim’s international debut.

China is far and away the North’s most important economic partner, and it has tightened its sanctions in recent months to increase the pressure on Mr Kim to ease up with his nuclear weapons programme.

Mr Kim has appeared less willing to toe Beijing’s line, however, and relations between the two countries have suffered.

By suddenly showing up in China this week he completely changed that narrative.

It’s not known yet what Mr Kim and Mr Xi discussed.

Two things are clear. By hosting Mr Kim before anyone else, Mr Xi very effectively reasserted China’s primary role in defusing tensions on the Korean Peninsula, which has long been a key national security concern for Beijing.

For Mr Kim, meeting with Mr Xi first means he will go into his summits with Mr Moon and Mr Trump better informed and less isolated.

More importantly for Mr Kim, the visit could be a step towards persuading China to ease its sanctions, or at least how strictly they are enforced.

SOUTH KOREA

The announcement that Mr Kim and Mr Moon would meet face to face was the first shock of the year.

Mr Kim floated the idea by sending his invitation-bearing sister to the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Olympics last month. The meeting is planned for late April in a truce village inside the DMZ.

Symbolically, it’s a huge step forward. Mr Moon and his liberal government have been taking the initiative to reach out to the North after a year of escalating missile launches and angry rhetorical barrages.

Mr Kim extended an olive branch of his own in January, vowing to make improved relations one of his top priorities for the year.

Until Mr Kim showed up in Beijing, it appeared Mr Moon would be his first summit partner.

While that somewhat blurs the focus on the North-South detente, the emotional story line of Korean nationalism and the hope of reunification is still bound to play well with Mr Kim’s domestic audience.

North Korea is working on several development projects that appear aimed at boosting South Korean tourism to its east coast.

Optimistic, yes. But it’s worked for Pyongyang before.

Mr Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, played that card nicely in the previous inter-Korea summits, held in 2000 and 2007.

HAMBURGERS WITH TRUMP?

This one still has a lot of question marks.

Basic things, like when and where – and some might add, if – it will take place have yet to be disclosed.

Instead of announcing it themselves, the White House let a visiting delegation from South Korea inform the media that Mr Trump had agreed to Mr Kim’s offer to meet “by May”. Almost nothing official has been announced since.

Lots of potential sites have popped up in the rumour mill, from Mr Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida to Mongolia (which has good relations with Pyongyang) to an ancient castle in Sweden.

In return for the chance to stand shoulder to shoulder as an equal with the leader of the Free World, Mr Kim may release three Americans imprisoned by the North as a gesture of goodwill.

But a big question remains over one very important word: denuclearisation.

Mr Kim has been using it a lot recently, and some officials in Washington have interpreted that to mean he might be willing to negotiate away his costly and hard-won nuclear arsenal.

But another interpretation is that he means a process that would involve all 30,000-plus US troops permanently withdrawing from the South and a number of security guarantees culminating in a peace treaty to formally end the 1950-53 Korean War.

That is what the North has been demanding for decades.

RUSSIA

A meeting between Mr Kim and Mr Putin would seem to be a no-brainer.

Mr Putin has been relatively friendly with Mr Kim’s regime and has actively tried to bolster ties, despite the international sanctions.

The two countries recently signed an agreement on cooperation in scientific research and might be discussing a new border bridge.

Russian media, meanwhile, is speculating that North Korean foreign minister Ri Yong Ho is planning to travel to Moscow next month.

Better relations with Moscow could benefit Mr Kim tremendously.

The fall of the Soviet Union was a major blow to the North — and a contributing factor behind a famine in the 1990s that is believed to have killed at least hundreds of thousands of North Koreans. Ties have never been the same since.

But along with potential economic benefits, closer relations with Russia are important as a balance against Chinese influence and a buffer against Washington and its allies. Mr Putin is certainly wary of encouraging a nuclear-armed neighbour, and cosying up with Mr Kim would be a way of thumbing his nose at the West.

And he does seem to like doing that.

JAPAN

Tokyo is playing catch-up.

Mired in a domestic corruption scandal and prone to follow Washington’s lead, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has just recently suggested he, too, wants to get in some quality time with Mr Kim.

Japan has big problems with Pyongyang that go well beyond the nuclear issue.

Kim Jong Il admitted in a summit in 2002 with then-prime minister Junichiro Koizumi that its agents had abducted Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s. Several were returned, but Tokyo has since demanded more information and the dispute has become a bitter stalemate.

Mr Abe is worried Japan’s demands on the “abduction issue” will fall to the wayside if he is left out in the cold while Mr Kim meets other leaders.

The cost could be excessively high, however.

In return for normalised relations, Pyongyang will likely demand Japan pay more for the damage caused by its 1910-1945 colonisation of the Korean Peninsula.

Some experts have speculated the bill could run into billions of dollars.

Press Association

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