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The past 24 hours in startling North Korea news, explained

The US made a big military concession, and Kim made a dramatic diplomatic trip to China — again.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un just had a great 24 hours.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un just had a great 24 hours.
Kevin Lim/The Strait Times/Handout/Getty Images

President Donald Trump continues to tout the success of his North Korea summit last week — but it’s Kim Jong Un who’s taking the real victory lap.

On Tuesday morning, the North Korean leader made his third trip to China in as many months to meet with President Xi Jinping. Xi used the opportunity to praise Kim and say that the summit was an “important step toward the political solution of the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue.”

And just the night before, the Pentagon announced that it would cancel a key military exercise with South Korea in August. That’s a big deal since that’s a significant concession the North Koreans have wanted for a long time. After all, they see these exercises as prep for an invasion and have protested against them every time they occur.

So in just the past 24 hours, it seems that the relationship between Washington and Seoul took a slight hit while Beijing-Pyongyang ties got a little stronger. This may all be in service of a potential deal to curb North Korea’s nuclear weapons program — but until that happens, it sure does look like Kim is making out like a bandit from the summit.

Kim visits Xi in China again

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in March 2018.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in March 2018.
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Just one week after meeting Trump in Singapore, Kim trekked to China to meet with Xi for the third time this year.

Experts think they know why Kim made the trip. “The most immediate reason Kim is visiting China is to share his impressions of the summit with President Xi,” Abigail Grace, who formerly worked on North Korea issues in Trump’s National Security Council, tells me. So most immediately, Kim will give Xi a personal briefing about his meeting with the US president.

“At a time when friction is rising in the US-China relationship,” says Grace, who is now at the Center for a New American Security think tank, “Kim knows it will be easier for him to convince Xi that his proposed, phased approach is preferable to the US-drafted road map. This will reduce US negotiating leverage when they push Kim to take meaningful steps toward real denuclearization.”

The US has said it wants North Korea to give up its nuclear program very quickly, while North Korea wants to go at a slower, more deliberate pace.

Either way, Kim likely wants to get China’s approval before he takes any real steps to dismantle his nuclear program. China is North Korea’s most important trading partner and ally. The Kim regime has stayed in power in part because of Beijing’s help. So if China doesn’t consent on just how Kim might curb his nuclear program, it’ll be much harder for Kim to do that.

But that’s not all: “Xi wants Kim to start China-like economic reforms,” says Oriana Skylar Mastro, a China expert at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, “so they will probably spend much of their time together discussing that.”

Kim might be open to that. After all, during his New Year’s Day address, Kim said his country would focus much more on improving the economy.

China had great success pulling around 800 million out of poverty by making some market-based reforms in 1978, according to the World Bank. If any country can help Pyongyang improve its economy, then, it’s Beijing.

The US and South Korea canceled an important military exercise

South Korean troops participate in Ulchi Freedom Guardian in 2017.
South Korean troops participate in Ulchi Freedom Guardian in 2017.
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Every August, the American and South Korean militaries train in an exercise called Ulchi Freedom Guardian. That won’t happen this year, though, as the US just stopped preparing for the drills.

“Consistent with President Trump’s commitment and in concert with our Republic of Korea ally, the United States military has suspended all planning for this August’s defensive ‘wargame,’” Dana White, the top Pentagon spokesperson, said in a Monday night statement. During a press conference after Trump met Kim last week, the president said, “We will stop the war games which will save us a tremendous amount of money.”

White also noted that both countries have yet to take any decisions about other joint exercises. Further, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and National Security Adviser John Bolton will meet later this week to discuss what happens next.

Ulchi Freedom Guardian consists of computer-simulated military drills that help troops prepare for a possible conflict on the Korean Peninsula. It features around 17,500 US troops, while forces from other countries — like Australia, Canada, Columbia, Denmark, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom — also join the drills.

Retired Marine Lt. Gen. Chip Gregson, the Pentagon’s top Asia official from 2009 to 2011, has mixed feelings about the announcement. A reduction in training, he says, means the US and South Korea may lose some of their abilities to work together during a conflict.

But he says he understands why Washington and Seoul came to this decision. “The logic deployed is [that] this suspension is a concession of some value to maintain momentum toward a less threatening, more stable situation,” says Gregson. “Fair enough — it’s hard to argue against diplomacy and peace.”

It’s possible that canceling the drill will make North Korea happier with America. After all, Pyongyang considers any military exercises with South Korea as thinly veiled preparation for war with the North.

After scrapping the drill, the thinking goes, North Korea may be more willing to give up some of its nuclear capabilities, like long-range missiles, the blueprints to build more nuclear bombs, or even some of its conventional weaponry that threaten around 26 million people in and around Seoul.

It’s unclear if that will work, though, as the Pentagon and CIA say Kim wants to keep his nuclear weapons to deter a US-led invasion. That means there’s a real chance the US just gave up a big concession without getting anything from North Korea in return.

“It remains to be seen if this leads to a reduction in the massive arsenal of artillery and rocket weapons in deeply buried and hardened shelters ... just across the river — and the DMZ [Demilitarized Zone] — from Seoul,” says Gregson.

Put together, the past 24 hours of news seem much more positive for North Korea than for America. But it’s too early to feel defeatist yet, Gregson told me. “Like so many things lately, it depends.”