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Chinese Experts Cautious About A Thaw In U.S.-North Korea Relations

NOEL KING, HOST:

There are unconfirmed reports this morning out of China that North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, is in China. Now, if that's true, that would make this his first visit since taking power nearly seven years ago. And as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing, if the reports are accurate, this visit could represent an important thaw in ties between the two neighboring countries.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Amateur videos on social media show a long convoy of vehicles wending its way through the capital towards the state guesthouse. But at a routine briefing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying would neither confirm nor deny reports of Kim's visit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HUA CHUNYING: (Through interpreter) I'm not aware of any information at present. When we have some, we will release the information in due course.

KUHN: China has kept past visits of North Korean leaders secret until they left the capital. Cheng Xiaohe is a North Korea expert at People's University in Beijing. He says that by indicating North Korea's willingness to abandon its nukes and talks with the U.S., Kim Jong Un has cleared away the main obstacle to mending fences with Beijing.

CHENG XIAOHE: (Speaking Chinese).

KUHN: "I don't think North Korea would be so stupid as to improve ties with the U.S.," he says, "while letting ties with China deteriorate." Publicly, China has welcomed news of talks between Pyongyang and Washington. But privately, some Chinese experts are a bit nervous about it.

ZHAO TONG: The fear that now North Korea's nuclear armed. If they side with U.S. and if the U.S. accepts North Korea, that could become a nightmare for China.

KUHN: That's Zhao Tong, a nuclear weapons expert at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing. He says that as China has tightened U.N. sanctions on North Korea, ties between Beijing and Pyongyang have frayed. And that's why, Zhao says, some Chinese worry that the U.S. might put aside its nuclear dispute with North Korea...

ZHAO: And use that nuclear-capable North Korea to serve as a strategic balancer in Northeast Asia to hedge against a rising China.

KUHN: Zhao thinks that's highly unlikely, but he notes that North Korea has in past expressed doubts about its alliance with China. Wendy Sherman witnessed this firsthand as North Korea policy coordinator in the Clinton administration. She was with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright when they visited the late leader Kim Jong Il in 2000. And she says Albright heard him say...

WENDY SHERMAN: North Korea had anxiety about China as well and considered getting a security guarantee from the United States an important possibility in reaching an ultimate peace treaty with South Korea.

KUHN: Sherman says it's not clear whether Pyongyang was trying to play the U.S. off against China or precisely what its intentions were. Should talks between the U.S. and North Korea actually get off the ground, Sherman says China will want to have a say, not just on the nuclear issue...

SHERMAN: But as importantly, what is going to be the future of Northeast Asia and the future of Asia? So China will most certainly be concerned and nervous because China believes this is theirs to decide.

KUHN: Of course, Sherman points out, a brewing trade war could scupper cooperation between Beijing and Washington. Also, she notes that China was part of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal from which President Trump has threatened to withdraw. And that, she says, could cast doubt on any future agreement about the North Korean nuclear issue. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBIT OF KAITLYN AURELIA SMITH'S "EXISTENCE IN THE UNFURLING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.