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What Kim Jong Un's Trip To China Means For Negotiations With North Korea


There's a video clip that China's state television has been playing today.


CORNISH: It shows Chinese President Xi Jinping walking down a red-carpeted walkway with Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea. They smile at each other. There's a prolonged handshake. This is one of the few glimpses we have into Kim Jong Un's surprise summit with China to talk about the North's nuclear program. David Kang has been watching all of this carefully. He's a professor of international relations and business at the University of Southern California. Welcome to the program.

DAVID KANG: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: This trip was reported as a surprise, as unofficial. We've heard about there being a tea lesson. Can you tell me what you see when you look at the images coming out of China?

KANG: Well, first of all, it's a surprise because of course Kim Jong Un has been leader for six years, and he hasn't been anywhere. And he certainly hasn't been to China, which is the place that North Korean leaders tend to go the most. So it's surprising just for that. He also took his wife, which his father and his grandfather never did. I mean, there were a lot of optics in this of smiling faces and camaraderie. And I think both sides went out of their way to show the charisma and the warmth between the two leaders. So I think he's really repairing his relationship with China.

CORNISH: How bad did that relationship get? I know last year, there were some moves to pressure North Korea. China suspended coal imports and fuel sales at different points. But how bad was it?

KANG: I think that we outsiders overestimated how bad it got. China has consistently said that sanctions which they supported are a path back to diplomacy. So China never supported pressure simply for its own sake. They always wanted to get back to diplomacy. But still, relations did deteriorate, and now they're on the upswing.

CORNISH: You talked about the optics of it. Do you think that the optics have been effective?

KANG: I think Kim Jong Un has shown in the last couple months he's a great diplomat. The optics of sending his sister to the Olympics, the optics of the joint teams and particularly this visit have put him in the center of the diplomatic story. And he's the one that we are all reacting to, not the other way around.

CORNISH: What does China get out of this?

KANG: I think China gets most out of this meeting a repairing of the ties and some direct conversations with Kim about what's going on. On top of that, it reasserts China deeply into the conversation about North Korea's nuclear program.

CORNISH: Was it really being cut out?

KANG: In some ways, we have viewed it that way. And in some ways, we even view South Korea as being cut out. But diplomacy with North Korea always involves South Korea, always involves China. And so in some ways, this is just a reminder. As, in the United States, we focus totally on the Trump meeting, South Korea's leader, Moon, is going to meet Kim before that - and that China and Korea are deeply involved in whatever goes on between the United States and North Korea.

CORNISH: What questions do you have as you see this going forward?

KANG: The big question is both South Korean and Chinese sources have said that North Korea said it was willing to denuclearize under the right circumstances. The North Koreans haven't said anything yet. And in a way, I'm not surprised because they have their own domestic political considerations. But I think that's the thousand-dollar question. Is North Korea going to come to the South Korea meeting or the U.S. meeting with any type of possible moving back on its nuclear program?

CORNISH: David Kang teaches international relations and business at USC. Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

KANG: Oh, my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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