North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, has made an unannounced visit to China at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping, state media confirmed Wednesday, apparently saying for the first time just weeks before a possible meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump that he is “willing” to sit down with the American leader.
The trip — Kim’s first outside the country since becoming North Korean leader in 2011 — was also his first meeting with another head of state, and added yet another element to a steady stream of diplomatic moves over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and missile programs.
The “unofficial” visit, which began Sunday and ran through Wednesday, according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency, was shrouded in secrecy with elements straight out of a novel, including a bulletproof train, an arrival in Beijing under cover of darkness and a large escorting motorcade.
“I have had successful talks with General Secretary Xi Jinping on developing relations between the two parties and the two countries, our respective domestic situation, maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, and other issues,” Kim said, according to Xinhua. “In this spring full of happiness and hopes, I believe my first meeting with General Secretary Xi Jinping will yield abundant fruits of DPRK-China friendship, and facilitate peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.”
In further remarks published by Xinhua, Kim reiterated his commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, saying that, thanks to the North’s peace initiative, the situation there “is starting to get better.”
“It is our consistent stand to be committed to denuclearization on the peninsula, in accordance with the will of late President Kim Il Sung and late General Secretary Kim Jong Il,” he said, a reference to his late grandfather and father, respectively, who preceded him as the country’s leaders.
Kim said that the North “is determined to transform the inter-Korean ties into a relationship of reconciliation and cooperation” and was “willing to have dialogue with the United States and hold a summit of the two countries.”
“The issue of denuclearization 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 realization of peace,” Kim said.
Trump shocked both those inside and outside his administration earlier this month when he told visiting South Korean officials, who had returned from talks with Kim in Pyongyang days earlier, that he would be willing to accept an invitation from the North Korean leader to meet.
The South Korean officials had told Trump that Kim voiced a commitment to the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” and pledged to refrain from any further nuclear or missile tests while talks were ongoing.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in is also scheduled to hold a summit with Kim next month.
Kim Jong Un’s predecessors both publicly promised not to build nuclear weapons but secretly continued to develop the program, culminating in the North’s first nuclear test in 2006 under Kim Jong Il and the successful launch last November of its longest-range missile to date, which it said had “realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.”
Pyongyang said in past failed talks aimed at dismantling its nuclear program that it would consider giving up its arsenal if the U.S. removed its troops from South Korea and withdrew its so-called nuclear umbrella from South Korea and Japan.
Some observers believe this remains North Korea’s stance, and are deeply skeptical that Kim would be willing to trade away an arsenal that forms the bedrock of his family dynasty’s rule.
This view was highlighted in the North’s official account of the meeting, which conspicuously made no mention of Kim’s pledge to denuclearize, or his anticipated meeting with Trump, which is planned for some time before the end of May.
Instead, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) report lauded the rekindled ties between the two countries, after relations soured in recent years due to the North’s repeated tests of nuclear weapons and advanced missiles, tests that sparked global condemnation. In response to the outcry, China last year offered its strongest support to date of United Nations sanctions against its increasingly isolated neighbor.
Though billed as an unofficial trip by both sides, Kim’s visit to Beijing contained almost all the trappings of a state visit, from an honor guard to a banquet at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.
State-run TV showed video of the two men chatting amicably and Kim’s wife, Ri Sol Ju, receiving an equally warm welcome from Xi’s wife, famed singer Peng Liyuan.
Kim was accompanied on his visit by some of the regime’s top brass, including Choe Ryong Hae, the country’s No. 2 ranking official, Kim Yong Chol, its spy chief, and Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, among others.
China also briefed Trump on the visit and delivered a personal message from Xi to the U.S. leader, the White House said in a statement.
“The United States remains in close contact with our allies South Korea and Japan. We see this development as further evidence that our campaign of maximum pressure is creating the appropriate atmosphere for dialogue with North Korea,” the statement said.
One of China’s diplomats, Politburo member Yang Jiechi, was to brief officials in Seoul on Thursday, including South Korea’s Moon, on Xi’s meeting with Kim, according to the presidential Blue House in Seoul.
Kim said at the banquet hosted by Xi that the visit was intended to “maintain our great friendship and continue and develop our bilateral ties at a time of rapid developments on the Korean peninsula,” according to KCNA.
The dispatch also said that Xi had accepted an invitation “with pleasure” from Kim to visit North Korea.
China’s statement, however, made no mention of Xi accepting an invitation, saying only that Xi had pledged to maintain frequent contact with Kim through the exchange of visits and sending special envoys and letters to each other.
Beijing had watched from the sidelines in recent months amid the flurry of diplomatic activity by Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington that saw a thaw in icy relations on the Korean Peninsula. The moves had stoked concern in Beijing — long a key voice in the North Korean nuclear issue — that it was no longer a central player in the matter amid the newfound detente.
While Pyongyang has not tested a missile or nuclear device this year, the North maintained a torrid pace of nuclear and ballistic-missile testing in 2017 — including the launch of two intermediate-range missiles over Japan. The isolated regime also conducted its most powerful nuclear blast to date in September, which the North claimed was of a thermonuclear weapon.
China supported North Korea during the 1950-1953 Korean War, and has since regarded it as a strategic buffer against South Korea, where the U.S. military stations some 28,500 troops. It has long wielded influence as its neighbor’s main economic lifeline.