Kim Jong Un has returned to North Korea after a surprise visit to Beijing that was shrouded in secrecy. It was his first known trip outside the country since taking power in 2011.
The North Korean leader met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other officials on the four-day trip, according to the official Xinhua news agency. Kim traveled in and out of China on a special train similar to one used by his father, Kim Jong Il, to visit his neighbor and ally shortly before his death almost seven years ago.
Kim held talks with Xi at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Xinhua said. Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan held a welcoming banquet for Kim and his wife Ri Sol Ju. They watched an art performance together.
Bloomberg News first reported Kim’s arrival in the Chinese capital Monday.
The visit comes amid a diplomatic flurry in Asia as leaders jockey for face time with Kim and seek to defuse tensions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program: He’s due to have a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in April, and potentially meet U.S. President Donald Trump before the end of May, while Japan’s prime minister has indicated he’d like to talk.
The nuclear frictions also risk getting caught up in broader geopolitics. Trump’s efforts to get China to cut its trade surplus with the U.S. have caused tensions with Beijing, alongside his willingness to entertain greater interactions with Taiwan, a democratically-ruled island that China considers a province. Xi has found himself preparing for a trade war with Trump, even after supporting progressive rounds of United Nations sanctions against Kim’s regime.
“The Chinese may have thrown the olive branch to Kim to keep him on its side,” said Zhang Baohui, director of Lingnan University’s Centre for Asian Pacific Studies in Hong Kong. “I guess Beijing will, while encouraging Kim to complete a nuclear deal with the U.S., offer him massive economic aid.”
Trump announced this month he’d grant an unprecedented meeting to the North Korean leader, after South Korean officials said Kim was willing to discuss giving up his arsenal. Still, North Korea’s state media haven’t confirmed the summit, and details on when and where it would happen are not yet worked out.
While Kim Jong Il was in power, Chinese and North Korean official sources usually waited until his return to Pyongyang to confirm he’d been in China. An exception was his final trip in May 2011, when Chinese state media reported the elder Kim’s meeting with then-President Hu Jintao a day before he left the country.
Ties between China and North Korea, who fought together against South Korean and U.S. forces during the Korean War, have been strained as China backed sanctions crimp the country’s energy imports and sources of foreign cash. Kim has also shown less willingness than his father to take China’s counsel: Not long after coming to power he executed his uncle, who was a key conduit for communication with Beijing.
While China opposes North Korea’s nuclear weapons, it also doesn’t want to see Kim’s regime collapse or war break out on the Korean Peninsula. Any instability could lead to a refugee crisis or potentially U.S. troops on its border.
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