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

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.

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.

Politics | 28.03.2018

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

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?

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

January 2, 2017: Missile test imminent

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said in his New Year’s address that his country was in the "final stages" of launching an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). US President-elect Donald Trump, whose inauguration was set for January 20, said on Twitter: "North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the US. It won't happen!"

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

July 4, 2017: North Korea's 'gift packages'

North Korea tested its first ICBM — the Hwasong-14 — on US Independence Day. Kim reportedly told his scientists that "the US would be displeased" by the launch. This, he said, was because "it was given a 'package of gifts' ... on its 'Independence Day.'" Trump wrote on Twitter in response: "North Korea has just launched another missile. Does this guy have anything better to do with his life?"

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

July 28, 2017: US mainland threatened

Pyongyang tested its second Hwasong-14 weeks later. Experts estimated the new rocket could reach the US mainland. Trump lashed out at North Korean ally China, writing in a Tweet: "I am very disappointed in China. Our foolish past leaders have allowed them to make hundreds of billions of dollars a year in trade, yet they do NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk."

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

August 8, 2017: 'Fire and fury'

Trump appeared to threaten swift military action against Pyongyang when he told reporters: "North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen." North Korea responded by threatening to fire a medium-range ballistic missile into the waters around Guam, a US territory in the Pacific Ocean. It did not follow through.

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

August 29, 2017: Japan rocket test

Pyongyang sparked international outcry when it test-launched a mid-range ballistic missile — the Hwasong-12 — over Japan. The UN Security Council unanimously condemned the test. Trump said in a White House statement: "Threatening and destabilizing actions only increase the North Korean regime’s isolation in the region and among all nations of the world. All options are on the table."

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

September 3, 2017: Hydrogen bomb test

North Korea announced it had successfully tested its sixth nuclear weapon. Pyongyang said it was a powerful type of nuclear weapon called a hydrogen bomb and that it could be placed on top of a ballistic missile. Trump wrote on Twitter: "The United States is considering, in addition to other options, stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea."

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

September 19, 2017: Threat to 'Rocket Man'

In his first speech at the United Nations, Trump called North Korea a "rogue state" and said Washington "will have no choice than to totally destroy North Korea" if Pyongyang failed to stop its nuclear weapons program. Referring to Kim, he added: "Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and his regime." Kim called Trump a "mentally-deranged US dotard" two days later.

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

November 29, 2017: Third ICBM test

North Korea test-fired its third ICBM of 2017. Pyongyang claimed it was a new missile, the Hwasong-15, which was superior to the Hwasong-14 and could hit any target on the US mainland. The US urged allies, including Germany, to break diplomatic ties with North Korea. Berlin ignored the call. Trump also called Kim a "sick puppy."

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

January 3, 2018: Who's got the bigger button?

Kim said in his 2018 New Year's address that the North had completed its nuclear weapons program and that a "nuclear button" was on his desk at all times. Trump wrote two days later on Twitter: "Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!"

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

February 10, 2018: Tensions thawing?

South Korean President Moon Jae-in welcomed Kim's sister, Kim Yo Jong, at the presidential house in the South Korean capital. She handed a letter to Moon inviting him to meet the North Korean leader in Pyongyang. Tensions appeared to be thawing. Seoul and Pyongyang had already agreed to send a unified hockey team to compete at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

March 6, 2018: Momentum builds

South Korean National Security Adviser Chung Eui-yong led a delegation on March 5 to Pyongyang to discuss the potential for peace talks. The next day, Chung said both sides had agreed to hold a joint summit in April and set up a telephone hotline between the two capitals. He also said Pyongyang would agree to stop its nuclear weapons and missile tests if the US agreed to hold talks with the North.

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

March 9, 2018: Trump agrees

Chung flew on to Washington, D.C. to speak with Trump. After the meeting, Chung told reporters the US president had agreed to meet Kim by May. Trump later wrote on Twitter: "no missile testing by North Korea during this period of time. Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned!" Foreign leaders welcomed the historic breakthrough.

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

April 19, 2018: 'Denuclearization'

A week before the scheduled meeting at the border between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Moon said North Korea wanted "an end to the hostile relations" and had expressed a commitment to "complete denuclearization" of the peninsula. The next day, the telephone hotline was connected for the first time since February 2016, so Moon and Kim could talk directly.

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

April 21, 2018: Kim ends missile tests

Kim announced North Korea would stop nuclear and missile tests. Kim said: "We no longer need any nuclear test or test launches of intermediate and intercontinental range ballistic missiles, and because of this the northern nuclear test site has finished its mission." However, no mention was made of its stored nuclear materials and equipment.

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

April 27, 2018: Historic summit

Kim and Moon Jae-in meet in the border town of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that has divided the two Koreas since the Korean War in 1953. The two leaders vowed to work towards a nuclear-free Korea and pledged an end to war. It was the first time a North Korean leader had set foot across the border since the 1950s and paves the diplomatic way for a Trump-Kim meeting in May or June.

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

April 30, 2018: Seoul turns off broadcasts

South Korea announces its propaganda loudspeakers are to be switched off for good. They had been silenced temporarily ahead of the inter-Korean summit, which prompted the North to halt its broadcasts, too. Pyongyang also said it would adjust its time zone to that of the South as a symbolic gesture. North Korea has been half an hour behind the South since 2015.

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

May 24, 2018: Trump calls off Kim summit

After North Korea slammed US Vice President Mike Pence for comparing North Korea and Libya, Donald Trump abruptly canceled the summit. Trump said the move was due to "tremendous anger and open hostility" displayed by Pyongyang.

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

June 1, 2018: Trump backtracks

A day after scrapping the summit, Trump suggested he was still open to meeting Kim. US and North Korean officials met during the following week and on June 1, Trump met one of Kim's closest aides, Kim Yong Chol, in the White House. Shortly thereafter, Trump said the summit would indeed take place on June 12 in Singapore. "I think you're going to have a very positive result in the end," he said.

North Korea: Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un's nuclear saga

June 12, 2018: Smiles in Singapore

Trump and Kim met in Singapore as planned. They smiled, shook hands and praised how far they had come in overcoming their previous animosity. The summit ended with both leaders signing a short joint declaration that committed Pyongyang to denuclearize and the US to providing unspecified "security guarantees" to the North. Trump also said he would invite Kim to the White House.

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.