World News

North Korea’s Kim Met Xi During Secret Visit to Beijing, China Says

Posted March 27, 2018 10:20 p.m. EDT
Updated March 27, 2018 10:24 p.m. EDT

BEIJING — North Korea’s enigmatic young leader, Kim Jong Un, made an unannounced visit to Beijing, meeting with President Xi Jinping weeks before planned summit meetings with American and South Korean leaders, Chinese and North Korean state news media reported on Wednesday.

The visit amounted to Kim’s international debut: It was the 34-year-old leader’s first trip outside North Korea since he took power in 2011, and his first meeting with another head of state. The surprise discussions added another layer of complexity to the rush of global diplomacy around North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Kim’s trip unfolded in extraordinary secrecy and security; it was confirmed only after he left Beijing on the same armored train that stirred speculation when it arrived mysteriously in the Chinese capital on Monday. (Both Kim’s father and grandfather, the North’s former leaders, used similar trains for foreign trips.)

Kim made the trip to China at the invitation of Xi, North Korea’s state-run Korean Central Television reported soon after the announcement in China. Kim was accompanied by his wife, Ri Sol Ju, as well as by his senior advisers, it said.

Kim told the Chinese leader that he was open to dialogue with the United States, including a potential summit meeting with President Donald Trump and was committed to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, according to an account published by China’s news agency Xinhua.

“If South Korea and the United States respond with goodwill to our efforts and create an atmosphere of peace and stability, and take phased, synchronized measures to achieve peace, the issue of the denuclearization of the peninsula can reach resolution,” Kim said, according to Xinhua’s summary of his meeting with Xi.

The visit suggested that Kim values or needs China’s approval — and possibly its advice — as he seeks to capitalize on a risky diplomatic opening with Trump after more than a year of tension and threats.

Xi, for his part, said that China supported efforts to defuse tensions on the Korean Peninsula and he praised Kim for the recent improvement there.

“This year there have been promising changes in the situation on the Korean Peninsula, and we express our appreciation for the major efforts that North Korea has made in this regard,” Xi said, according to Xinhua.

The tone was a significant shift. Over the past six years, relations between the two leaders have been widely reported as chilly. Kim rebuffed overtures from China, and purged officials who had previously served as the main channels to Beijing, including his uncle, who was executed.

At a banquet this week, though, Kim praised North Korea’s friendship with China, saying he wanted to “continue the traditional” ties, Xinhua said.

China described the trip as an unofficial visit, though it published photographs of the youthful leader with Xi and the two leaders’ wives, and of their tour of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

In Washington, the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, told reporters that the Chinese government had contacted administration officials on Tuesday to brief them about Kim’s visit. The briefing included a personal message from the Chinese leader to Trump.

Yang Xiyu, one of China’s leading experts on North Korea, said Kim was clearly trying to repair the North’s deeply strained relations with Beijing, its traditional ally and benefactor, while opening new ties with its enemy South Korea.

Even so, Yang said, that did not signal that Kim was willing to give up his nuclear arsenal, though he has told South Korean envoys that he was prepared to discuss the possibility.

“He is starting a new game where he could make concessions on denuclearization,” Yang said. “At most, he will cut the grass, but he will not pull out the roots.”

The Trump administration has made it clear that it will not tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea able to launch ballistic missiles that could strike the United States. Those in Washington who favor a forceful approach with the North were bolstered last week by the appointment of John Bolton as Trump’s national security adviser; only a month ago, Bolton warned that a pre-emptive strike on North Korea’s arsenal would be a “perfectly legitimate” response to a threat to the U.S. mainland.

After months of increasing political and economic pressure, North Korea’s once-defiant tone has shifted dramatically since January, for which some have credited Trump’s threats of military action. Last month, the North sent a delegation to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, led by Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, and the North’s nominal head of state, Kim Yong Nam. They put on a charm offensive that led to direct talks with the South Koreans, plans for a meeting between Kim Jong Un and the South’s president, Moon Jae-in, and then an extraordinary offer to meet directly with Trump.

The meeting with Moon is set to take place next month on the Koreas’ border, while Trump is to hold his own talks with Kim by May, though the exact timing and location are still to be determined.

Now, with no prior fanfare, Xi has become the first major foreign leader to meet Kim.

Their meeting may help ease tensions between China and the North after years of deepening rancor. China supports the international efforts to rein in the North’s nuclear weapons development, but experts say it also wants to keep the North as a stable buffer on its northeast border.

Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, said that despite the recent strains in the relationship, it was not surprising that the North Koreans would turn to China at this moment — one that would be pivotal for any leader, let alone one as untested as Kim.

“Kim Jong Un is now in a most difficult economic situation, and he faces a gamble to meet Trump,” Shi said.

Since Kim took power after his father’s death more than six years ago, Chinese officials and experts have become increasingly disdainful of him for ignoring Beijing’s entreaties to halt his nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests.

While China has never entirely turned its back on North Korea, it has grown increasingly alarmed by the nuclear tests, which have brought threats of dire punishment from Trump. Under that pressure, Beijing has backed increasingly stringent United Nations sanctions that have reduced the North’s exports of coal, seafood and other goods to China.

Kim’s Beijing visit underscored the historic bonds between the two countries, forged in shared experiences of war and Communist revolution.

“At a time when the situation on the Korean Peninsula is undergoing huge unprecedented changes,” Kim said, according to Xinhua’s account, “I have made this quick visit to China with the fine hopes of advancing peace and stability on the peninsula and continuing and developing Korean-Chinese friendship.”

China backed North Korean forces in the Korean War of 1950-53, during which hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers died. Kim may be following an example set by his father, Kim Jong Il, in appealing to those ties after a period of tension.

The elder Kim’s first visit to China — in 2000 — also came roughly six years after he took power, and shortly before a planned summit meeting with South Korea. Before then, China and North Korea had gone through years of strain after Beijing established diplomatic relations with Seoul in 1992.

There were other similarities between the two visits, including Kim Jong Un’s furtive, unannounced arrival aboard an armored train, which was first spotted at North Korea’s border with China near the city of Dandong. During his 2000 visit, Kim Jong Il toured Chinese special economic zones, as Chinese leaders sought to show him the merits of opening markets. But the current North Korean leader apparently made no such side trips outside of Beijing.

Neither China nor North Korea acknowledged the visit while Kim Jong Un was in the capital, underscoring the ability of both governments to tightly control the narrative of their diplomacy.

The only evidence of Kim’s presence on Monday and Tuesday was heightened security around the North Korean Embassy and the government guesthouse where the delegation stayed, as well as the comings and goings of large motorcades of black sedans and SUVs with police escorts.

The last of those carried Kim’s delegation back to Beijing’s central train station on Tuesday afternoon. Even then, a spokeswoman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hua Chunying, deflected a question about it at a daily briefing. The official confirmation came only after Kim was back in North Korea early on Wednesday morning.