BEIJING (AFP) – North Korean leader Kim Jong-un arrived yesterday on an unannounced visit to Beijing for talks with President Xi Jinping, as preparations ramp up for an expected second summit with United States (US) President Donald Trump.
China is the isolated, nuclear-armed North’s key diplomatic ally and main source of trade and aid, and the visit is likely to heighten speculation about the potential meeting with the US President, as Kim could coordinate his strategy with Xi.
China’s foreign ministry said Kim would meet with Chinese leaders to discuss “relevant issues” but did not reveal more about his itinerary.
The North Korean leader, accompanied by his wife Ri Sol Ju and several senior officials, had set off from Pyongyang on his private train on Monday, the official Korean Central News Agency reported.
The trip is at Xi’s invitation and set to run until tomorrow, according to KCNA and China’s official Xinhua news agency.
His fourth visit to China comes a week after Kim warned in a New Year’s speech that Pyongyang may change its approach to nuclear talks if Washington persists with sanctions.
“Both Xi and Kim see value in coordinating their positions in advance of Trump-Kim summits. That appears to be a pattern,” Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, told AFP.
“Kim also seeks Beijing’s help in getting international sanctions eased.”
While China and Russia have said the United Nations (UN) should consider relaxing sanctions on North Korea, Trump insisted last Sunday that they would remain “in full force and effect” until the US sees “very positive” results in the nuclear issue.
Kim’s trip coincides with the second day of talks between US and Chinese officials in Beijing aimed at resolving their trade war, but China rejected the notion that it was using the North Korean issue as a bargaining chip in the negotiations.
“Xi also gains from a summit with Kim – and the timing could not be any better,” said Harry Kazianis, Director of Defence Studies at the Center for the National Interest, a US think tank.
“With Chinese and US officials meeting to discuss how to end the growing trade war between the two superpowers, it shows Beijing clearly has a North Korea card to play if it sees fit.”
The trip began under the usual veil of secrecy and Kim has not been spotted in public since a motorcade believed to be carrying the North Korean entourage left a Beijing train station under heavy security early yesterday.
While the visit was the second item on China’s important evening news broadcast, newscasters simply read out a statement from the morning without showing any images of the visit.
Kim – whose birthday was reportedly yesterday – visited China three times last year for talks with Xi.
“This is Kim’s first birthday in China. It shows his close relationship with China, like members of one family,” said Beijing-based independent political commentator Hua Po.
But relations went through a rough patch in recent years as China backed UN sanctions over the North’s nuclear tests.
Until his first trip in March, Kim had not met Xi in the six years after inheriting power from his father.
“At different times, our interactions are different, but communication is maintained,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said at a regular press briefing.
“As to in what form this is reflected, I don’t think there’s a need to read too much into it,” Lu said, adding that US trade talks and Kim’s visit were unrelated.
A whirlwind of diplomacy enveloped the Korean peninsula last year, with Kim also meeting the South’s President Moon Jae-in three times, and culminating in his high-profile Singapore summit with Trump in June.