N. Korea’s Kim Shows Unity With China During First Foreign Trip

Kim Jong-un
Kim Jong-un. Photo: KCNA VIA KNS, AFP

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was given a lavish welcome by Chinese President Xi Jinping during a secretive trip to Beijing as both sides try to repair frayed relations before Pyongyang’s landmark summits with Seoul and Washington.

U.S. President Donald J. Trump welcomed the Beijing meeting and said there was now a “good chance” Mr. Kim would scrap his nuclear weapons — but warned that sanctions must stay in force in the meantime.

On his first trip abroad since taking power, Mr. Kim and his wife were greeted by an honour guard and a banquet hosted by President Xi, according to state media, which confirmed the “unofficial” visit on Wednesday only after the North Korean leader had returned by train to his country.

The two men held talks at the stately Great Hall of the People during which they hailed their nations’ historic relations, with Mr. Kim pledging he was “committed to denuclearisation” on the Korean peninsula, according to China’s Xinhua news agency.

Mr. Kim also expressed willingness to hold the summits with Mr. Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, it said.

President Trump tweeted that Mr. Xi had sent him a message on Tuesday to say his meeting with the North Korean leader “went very well and that KIM looks forward to his meeting with me.”

Mr. Kim told President Xi there was “no question that my first foreign visit would be to the Chinese capital,” according to North Korea’s official KCNA news agency. “This is my solemn duty as someone who should value and continue the DPRK-PRC (North Korea-China) relations through generations.”

KCNA said Mr. Xi accepted an invitation to visit Pyongyang in what would be his first trip to the North Korean capital since he took power in 2012.

The two men had not met since Mr. Kim took over after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in December 2011. Relations have been strained as China has backed a series of tough U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang over its nuclear and missile tests.

But President Xi underscored the importance of developing ties, saying it was “a strategic choice and the only right choice” and that he was willing to maintain frequent contact with Kim “under the new circumstances,” according to Xinhua.

Analysts said the Chinese leader likely wanted to see Mr. Kim to ensure North Korea does not cut a deal with President Trump that hurts Chinese interests during a summit expected to be held in May.

Mr. Kim’s visit puts China back in the diplomatic game after appearing sidelined by Pyongyang’s approaches to Seoul and Washington.

“It shows that at this crucial juncture, Kim and Xi believed that it was time to seize the opportunity to consult,” Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told AFP. “Both likely concluded that further deterioration in relations would be harmful.”

Deng Yuwen, an independent Chinese international relations scholar, said North Korea needed to turn to its old ally ahead of the U.S. summit, as Mr. Kim will be sceptical that President Trump will provide his regime with security guarantees.

“North Korea needs the big brother to protect it at a crucial moment,” Mr. Deng said.

Mystery Train

South Korea said last month after talks with Mr. Kim in Pyongyang that he would consider abandoning his nuclear weapons in exchange for U.S. security guarantees, and would halt weapons tests while talks were under way.

“The issue of denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved, if South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realisation of peace,” Mr. Kim said, according to Xinhua.

Chinese special envoy Yang Jiechi will travel to Seoul on Thursday to brief Mr. Moon about the Kim-Xi summit, the South’s presidential office said.

Confirmation of the visit ended 24 hours of speculation about the identity of a mysterious North Korean visitor after Japanese media spotted a green train, similar to the one used by Mr. Kim’s father, arriving in Beijing on Monday and departing the following day.

Despite the news blackout a heavy police presence at key venues, barricades and mysterious motorcades hinted at his presence.

Frayed Ties

North Korea’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper on Wednesday featured photos of Chinese officials greeting Mr. Kim and his wife with flowers at the train station. His visit to China came as a surprise given the state of relations between the Cold War-era allies, which fought together in the 1950-53 Korean War.

China chaired six-party talks on North Korea that collapsed in 2009 but its calls to revive that forum have not been heeded so far. Frustrated by its neighbour’s nuclear weapons programme and under pressure from President Trump, China has used its economic leverage to squeeze Kim’s regime.

At the same time, Beijing fears the collapse of the regime in Pyongyang would send waves of refugees into China and place U.S. troops stationed on its border in a unified Korea.