World News

In Twist, Video Fuels Speculation That Kim Jong Un Is Visiting Beijing

Posted March 26, 2018 9:22 p.m. EDT
Updated March 26, 2018 9:24 p.m. EDT

BEIJING — A video that appeared to show the arrival in Beijing of an old-style green train of the kind that has been used by North Korea’s leaders fueled intense speculation Monday that a high-level North Korean delegation, perhaps even one led by Kim Jong Un, was meeting Chinese leaders before Kim’s planned meetings with President Donald Trump and South Korea’s president.

There was no official pronouncement from China or North Korea about the train and its passengers. The South Korean press, which usually monitors North Korean official movements carefully, was circumspect Monday night about the speculation.

But the Japanese broadcaster NTV showed footage of what it said was the train arriving in Beijing. It said that green cars with yellow stripes were similar to those used by Kim’s father and predecessor as leader, Kim Jong Il, when he visited China in 2011, raising the possibility that the younger Kim or a powerful envoy may be visiting Beijing.

In addition, the Japanese broadcaster NHK, citing unnamed diplomatic sources, said that a train seemed to have arrived in Beijing from North Korea.

Journalists in Beijing also spotted a military honor guard welcoming a convoy of vehicles that entered the Diaoyutai state Guesthouse where top North Korean leaders have been known to stay on visits to China, adding to the speculation about a high-level delegation from the North.

But even the closest watchers of Kim’s activities were unsure who was on the train. Some residents in Beijing shared images of what seemed to be a motorcade of 20 or so cars speeding through the city, but those images could not be verified.

“We are closely monitoring any related movements, using various channels to try to confirm them,” the office of South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, said in a brief statement about news reports about the train.

A top-level North Korean visit to the Chinese capital would be another surprise twist in a recent whirlwind of diplomacy over North Korea’s nuclear arms, and could ease years of icy strains between Beijing and North Korea.

China’s president, Xi Jinping, has never met Kim. Kim has not visited China since he became North Korea’s leader in 2011, despite a partnership between the two communist neighbors.

If Kim was on the train, it would be his first trip outside his country as North Korea’s leader. He has never met any foreign head of state. If he meets Xi before his planned meetings with Trump and Moon, it could help mend the recently frayed ties between the two old communist allies.

Kim’s aggressive drive for a nuclear arsenal able to strike the continental United States has drawn increasingly harsh criticism from Beijing, which has backed several rounds of increasingly stringent sanctions against North Korea. North Korean exports of coal, seafood and other valuable sources of currency have been reduced by the sanctions.

No official activity by Kim has been reported by North Korea’s state-run media since he met the South Korean envoys on March 5, when the two sides agreed to a meeting between Kim and Moon in the border village of Panmunjom in late April.

The South Korean envoys then visited the White House on March 9, delivering what they said was Kim’s offer to discuss denuclearizing his country with Trump. Trump accepted the invitation on the spot and said he would meet Kim by May.

During this swirl of abrupt turns, China has mostly been a bystander, playing no direct role in the diplomacy. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said it welcomes the easing of tensions. But experts have said that Beijing would want to make sure that any negotiations protect its interests.

North Korea depends heavily on China for trade, food, energy and a degree of protection from even tougher international sanctions. But the North has bristled at the idea that it is beholden to China. And Chinese officials and many experts say that China’s influence over North Korea is more limited and brittle than Trump and other Western leaders seem to believe.

From 2003, Beijing hosted six-party talks which brought together North and South Korea, the United States, Japan, Russia and China to seek an agreement on ending the North’s nuclear program. But the talks foundered after 2009. More recently, Beijing has proposed that North Korea suspend its nuclear and missile tests in return for the United States and South Korea suspending major joint military exercises.