Government & Military

Kim Jong-Un

He’s loathed in Beijing and Washington, yet has set the two at loggerheads.

Supreme Leader, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

Mention the mercurial Kim Jong-un in a room full of Chinese people, and you’re likely to get eye-rolls and sighs. Forget that China is one of North Korea’s few remaining allies, its benefactor, and its putative comrade in Communist struggle; Beijing is fed up with its autarkic neighbor and its young leader. Kim has repeatedly launched missiles and performed nuclear tests in contravention of Chinese warnings; in early 2016 his regime conducted a nuclear test on the eve of Spring Festival, China’s biggest holiday, sending government workers scrambling back to their posts when they could have been spending time with their families. Chinese web users love to hate him, calling the scion “Fatty Kim the Third.”

Yet despite being loathed in both Beijing and Washington, Kim has managed to drive a wedge between the two. Beijing can tolerate a nuclear North Korea, just not its collapse; Washington can tolerate a collapsed North, but (it says) not a nuclear one. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has bluntly urged China to use its unique influence to bring Kim to heel. For many years, Beijing felt it had done enough — and would not even entertain bilateral discussions about how to manage a post-Kim North. But in February, perhaps due to American pressure, Beijing announced it had suspended coal imports from North Korea, although questions of impact and follow-through remain.

While the danger grows, so too does Kim’s impact on U.S.-China relations.

(Photo credit: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

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