What could the experienced and well-versed man who leads China today, and whose choices ultimately guarantee the existence of the reign of the young Kim Jong-un, do when the latter seemed to be setting up historic meetings with everyone else but him? Call him to his house.
Xi Jinping did just that. And the young Kim went straight away, realizing that going to Beijing without making any fuss was the right move. His attitude could be read in his words in the official press release: “It’s most proper that my first overseas trip would be the capital of the People’s Republic of China. It’s also one of my noble duties to value the North Korea-China friendship as I do my own life.” Highly committed words, and also very understandable, because the rumor mill was having it that Xi and Kim were quite distant, perhaps a matter of mutual dislike. Or, perhaps, Xi was feeling a lack of respect, which now appears duly rectified.
Before going deeper into this world of diplomacy, safe signals and future moves, we should also think about the veil of secrecy under which China and North Korea tried to hide this historic moment.
On Monday, a train arrived in China from North Korea. It was a green military convoy, the same used by Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, who apparently died in one of those very train cars. Then we heard about black cars with mirrored windows, moving fast through the avenues of the Chinese capital that anyone who has been to China knows well: spacious, always looking like they’re freshly paved and cleaned every night. The police were everywhere, indicating that something special was being prepared, or happening right at that moment.
We wondered if all this commotion was for Kim, and we answered our own question: yes, it must have been, because some well-known, age-old rituals are sometimes brought back — such as the custom of revealing the presence of a North Korean leader in Beijing only when he has already returned to Pyongyang. This was how it was done before, and this time was the same.
There was a precedent for all the waiting and the half-admissions, like those coming from Beijing’s spokesman who told reporters that “we will tell you in due time.” It all came into view as a clear signal: Kim is in China after all. And there were even more clues, particularly one detail, crucial in the context of the “before”: the North Korean foreign minister is scheduled to visit Russia soon. No matter how brave Kim might be in his own way, it was unimaginable that he would diplomatically humiliate China by sending a mere official to Beijing as well. It was clear: Xi invited Kim, and Kim had to go.
Then, there is the question of what comes after. The images suggest a historic event, built up with the smooth elegance that only Asia can offer. The two leaders and their wives drinking tea, the two leaders gathered around a table to exchange opinions, with the young Kim taking quick notes while Xi is speaking. Obviously, Xi was not one to take notes in turn. In this choreography we can see re-enacted the depth of traditions, millennia-old customs and the wisdom of Confucius: the young man who listens and writes down in a notebook the more experienced man’s words. It is a moment of great satisfaction for Xi, the most powerful leader of China and even of the whole world — according to the Economist — who might have felt himself snubbed by that millennial at the head of a small power but armed with a nuclear deterrent.
The meeting in Beijing put China back where it should be, according to the Chinese: at the center of every development, the hyperactive brain in charge of the complicated Asian situation. Xi must have wanted to personally probe Kim’s intentions. At stake was not only peace, but also prestige, not “losing face,” as Xi is a leader who has managed to remove the last limits on his power, asking for and receiving the abolition of the second term limit, and who must now be careful with every step he makes, secret or public.
What else could anyone have expected then? Kim reiterated what he had already said: North Korea would be willing to stop its nuclear race following a dialogue with all parties: Moon Jae-in, Trump, Shinzo Abe, anyone. “The issue of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved, if South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realization of peace,” Kim said.
After Moscow also gave its green light—a longtime partner in this Asian dance—the agendas are being written: yesterday, Seoul said that it has received the names of those who will be on the North Korean delegation for the meeting with President Moon.
It’s time to jot down the dates: late April, Moon; end of May, Trump. At that point we will understand if there is a real possibility for a compromise, if there is a chance that China and the US will see eye to eye when North Korea is in the middle, in one of the areas that — irrespective of our own Eurocentrism — seems more and more central to the future of the international community.
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