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Opinion: A big stage for the 'little rocket man'

March 28, 2018

Kim's short visit to China was a smart chess move, as he now has a stronger negotiating position. Although all parties consider themselves to be the winner, concrete results remain to be seen, says DW's Alexander Freund.

Kim meet Xi in Beijing
Image: picture -alliance/AP/L. Jin-man

The young North Korean leader Kim Jong Un can call his quick visit to Beijing a success. He got the chance to preemptively involve big brother China in advance of direct talks next month with South Korea, and potentially with the US – if everything goes smoothly.

Kim now can now enter negotiations knowing China has his back, and thanks to his nuclear curtain and demonstratively standing side by side with China, Kim can sit with more confidence at the table. He will negotiate as an equal and not as a beggar, who has been forced to his knees by sanctions.

DW's Alexander Freund
DW's Alexander Freund

In exchange for denuclearization, Kim expects "an atmosphere of peace and stability" from the US and South Korea. In other words, this really means that Kim and his circle of power want to have guaranteed security and that South Korea will begin disarming.

Kim's inaugural visit to China was more than overdue, considering Kim's rocket tests and nuclear ambition, which have undermined China's authority as a protective power. For a long time, China has unsuccessfully campaigned for a solution in the so-called Six Party Talks.

Beijing's support of UN sanctions against North Korea was a clear sign that Pyongyang had put a major burden on this traditionally close relationship.

Read more: North and South Korea 'suspicious' of China

No solution without China

The fact that Kim is asking for support ahead of any negotiating process can be considered a big success by Beijing. Without China, there can be no solution to the conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

The manner in which Kim's mysterious train journey was orchestrated by Chinese media and how Xi's leadership role was celebrated shows how important this interpretation is for China. Xi Jinping can justifiably call himself the victor – with the authority of being the protector tentatively reinstated. Whatever Kim discusses with South Korean President Moon Jae In or US President Donald Trump – no decisions will be possible without Xi.

Read more: Will K-Pop diplomacy ease tension ahead of Korea talks?

President Trump also sees himself as a winner – as his tough stance put so much pressure on North Korea that Pyongyang was forced to make a move. The much-maligned Trump will claim success in finally changing something in the completely deadlocked Korea conflict.

If Trump is also able to negotiate a successful deal for the US, then this would actually be to his merit. This could range from denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula to the elimination of rocket tests aimed at the US.

What concessions Trump would make for this remain to be seen. He could probably go without joint military maneuvers with South Korea or the stationing of THAAD air batteries, but the removal of US forces from South Korea would be hard for him to agree to. Kim sees the "denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula" to also mean the withdrawal of the US' tactical nuclear weapons arsenal from the region, such as those on submarines.

Read more: 'US must not cross red line' during possible Trump-Kim meeting

South Korean President Moon must also be included as a winner – even if he is less noticeable among the alpha males. His policy of dialogue created an atmosphere of trust at exactly the right moment, which fortunately has been recognized by North Korean leaders.

Increasing chances for success

Success has many fathers and this is once more apparent. When many consider themselves winners, then chances for success also increase. However, it must be made clear to all of these supposed winners that nothing concrete has yet been reached and actual negotiations are still pending. Differences and mutual mistrust are understandably large. But, at least, there is a realistic hope for a negotiated solution. And compared with the war rhetoric in recent months, this is actually a real success.