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China's President Was In North Korea Thursday. Next Week He Talks To Trump

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This was a first for Chinese President Xi Jinping since taking power seven years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF WELCOME CEREMONY)

INSKEEP: Bands played. People cheered, as they would, because this was North Korea, and President Xi was standing next to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for a state visit in Pyongyang. What's Xi's purpose in going there? Well, Christopher Hill is going to help us talk that through. He is a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and former negotiator on North Korea's nuclear program.

Ambassador, welcome back.

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Do you think you understand why President Xi is dropping by now?

HILL: Well, I think there are a number of motivations. First of all, I think the North Koreans have decided they need to show a little fidelity to the Chinese. I think they're very interested in saying look, China. We've been with the Americans for some time, but we've never forgotten you; you're our big brother, etc. And I think from China's perspective it's to say, look, Americans; we won't be ignored. This is an important part of our world. It's our neighbor. And so as we get ready to see President Trump, we want to make clear that we're a player here, and you better understand that.

INSKEEP: Thanks for reminding us that President Xi is going to see President Trump at the G-20 summit that's coming up in just a few days. By seeing one president and then the other president, does China's Xi get to be an intermediary between them?

HILL: I don't think he's really looking to be an intermediary so much as to say to the U.S. - look, you're going to need the North Koreans to do certain things. You're going to need them to get more serious about denuclearization. By the way, we agree with you on that. But you know, you need to kind of broaden the architecture to include us because we just - we are here, we have an important historic relationship with this country. And the idea that you're just going to talk to the North Koreans and we're going to sit around waiting for the phone to ring to get a briefing on it is just not going to work for us.

And so I think it's also to say - look, Americans. I know you have a lot of advisers telling you - look, Mr. Trump, you have a lot of advisers telling you that we're on hard times. Actually, we're a pretty tough, important country in the world, and don't believe people who say that we are really being rattled by your tariffs. We can handle that. And you need to understand that we are a force to be reckoned with.

INSKEEP: Yeah. And there are certainly many areas of conflict between China and the United States right now. But to what extent is North Korea one of them? - by which I mean, the U.S. wants a non-nuclear North Korea. Does China see it in its interests to push North Korea to denuclearize?

HILL: China is in favor of denuclearization. This has been a longstanding position. There are some who believe that somehow China wants them to have nuclear weapons to cause problems for us. I don't think there's any evidence for that. I think they want denuclearization. The issue is, for what price? And I think there are many Chinese - and don't forget, in a country of 1.3 billion people, you have some differences of opinion. But I think there are many Chinese who believe the price should be to get the U.S. off the Korean Peninsula - to say, look; denuclearization will happen but only if you weaken your alliance with South Korea. So that is really the question - what is the United States prepared to pay for it?

And then of course, the secondary question - or most important question, I should say, is whether North Korea is actually prepared to do away with nuclear weapons, even if the payback would be a U.S. off the Korean Peninsula.

INSKEEP: I take it that you would not agree that what you just laid out as China's position is a good deal for the United States.

HILL: No. I think it's very important for the U.S. to be on the Korean Peninsula. If the U.S. is not on the Korean Peninsula, its only troops in East Asia would, therefore, be in Japan. So I think it needs to have a presence in northeast Asia. I think it's a stabilizing presence. And we should be making that case to the Chinese and making it clearly that, no, they are not going to be able to change our relationship with South Korea in order to get more flexibility from the North Koreans.

INSKEEP: Well, I guess President Trump will have an opportunity to send that message, if he chooses to do so, in a few days.

HILL: That's correct.

INSKEEP: Ambassador, thanks so much.

HILL: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Christopher Hill was assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs from 2005 until 2009. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.