Opinion | Kim Jong-un Stages a Pageant in Pyongyang for Xi Jinping

For the visiting comrade from the People’s Republic of China, Kim Jong-un of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea pulled out all the stops this week, as only a supreme leader can do. Untold thousands of joyous citizens waved flags at the airport and along the route into Pyongyang, and in the evening fireworks exploded over a stadium full of synchronized dancers, all duly shown on tightly controlled news programs.

What Communist leaders don’t do particularly well, though, is report on what they actually talk about when they get together. Officially, this meeting was about their unbreakable friendship. In fact, that friendship has been on the rocks for some time, and it’s safe to presume that what really led China’s Xi Jinping to call on Mr. Kim was their other mutual “friend,” Donald Trump.

Mr. Xi (“actually an incredible guy,” with whom he has a “great relationship,” according to President Trump) is currently embroiled in a brutal trade war with his friend in Washington, who has threatened to impose duties on $300 billion worth of Chinese products if he can’t get the trade deal he wants.

Mr. Kim (from whom Mr. Trump said he recently received what he described as a “beautiful letter”) has held two well-hyped meetings with the American president over the North’s nuclear weapons program and the crippling economic sanctions the North has incurred. But the meetings failed to bridge the divide between Washington’s insistence that the North close down its program, and the North’s offer of gradual downsizing in exchange for sanctions relief.

So in effect, the show was the message. The Chinese leader will meet Mr. Trump at the Group of 20 meeting in Osaka, Japan, on Friday, and he needed to demonstrate that he is in a good position to help the Americans with North Korea. To drive the point home, Mr. Xi put his name to an article in the official North Korean newspaper, Rodong Sinmun — an unusual occurrence among Communist leaders — saying China was willing to draw up a “grand plan” with North Korea that would “realize permanent peace” on the Korean Peninsula.

Mr. Kim, for his part, needs Mr. Xi’s support to persuade Mr. Trump to ease international sanctions. China is the only ally North Korea has, but Beijing has joined in the sanctions against Pyongyang after repeated tests of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles by the North, and Mr. Xi has generally shown disdain for Mr. Kim. So the oddly coiffed North Korean dictator needed to give a really grand welcome to Mr. Xi. Besides, Mr. Kim doesn’t get many chances to show off his supreme powers — the last Chinese leader came calling 14 years ago, and few others visit him.

If Mr. Trump actually planned this scenario, he deserves kudos for devising powerful levers against two despotic leaders wielding daunting weapons, economic in China and nuclear in North Korea. This could be the moment for the president to negotiate more balance into trade with China and to use Mr. Xi’s mediation to get serious concessions from Mr. Kim. If he does that, a tip of the hat.

Yet the president has consistently demonstrated that he has no coherent global strategy, and he acts on impulse without consulting advisers or allies. He gets miffed at friends and admires strongmen, and if he has a consistent goal, as Thomas Friedman wrote in The Times recently, it is to show he can succeed where former President Barack Obama didn’t. In the case of trade with China and North Korea’s nuclear weapons development, getting deals that Mr. Obama couldn’t would be welcome. But without a road map, Mr. Trump’s brinkmanship with China could still escalate into a mutually ruinous trade war, and Mr. Kim, like Iran’s leaders, might decide that North Korea’s only option is to accelerate its nuclear program.

The G-20 meeting in Osaka will be Mr. Trump’s chance to show that he has learned what friends are for.

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