Kim Jong-un is making his fourth visit to China, in a sign that the North Korean leader is seeking Chinese President Xi Jinping’s counsel ahead of a possible second summit with Donald Trump.
Kim left Pyongyang on January 7 for a visit slated to end on Thursday, North Korean and Chinese state media reported. Kim was invited by Xi and accompanied by his wife Ri Sol Ju and several top officials on his train journey across the border, the state-run Korean Central News Agency said.
Xi and Kim met for an hour and began a dinner before 7 pm local time, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported, without citing anyone. It was Kim’s 35th birthday, according to South Korea’s Unification Ministry, although the date hasn’t been confirmed by Pyongyang.
The trip — Kim’s fourth to China since March — suggests negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear arsenal are gaining momentum after months without high-level diplomatic exchanges. Trump is seeking a second summit with Kim to reenergise talks that have made little headway since their first meeting in June, saying Sunday a date would be announced “in the not-too-distant future.”
Kim could be looking to leverage his relationship with Xi, who Trump has accused of relaxing pressure on North Korea, to push the US to make concessions in nuclear talks.
The North Korean leader said in his New Year’s address that he might take a “new path” in negotiations if Trump didn’t ease trade, travel and investment restrictions.
“For China, North Korea is something that it cannot give up, if it wants to maintain its leverage on the Korean Peninsula,” said Lee Sang-sook, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy. “But for North Korea, China is its strongest foothold when it pushes forth with its campaign to lift sanctions.”
Kim travelled to China — his most important security and trade partner — before meetings last year with Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Trump complained after a similar China trip in May that Xi might have emboldened Kim to take a harder line before their own eventual meeting in Singapore.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a news briefing that China had no reason to use North Korea as a bargaining chip in US trade talks occurring elsewhere in Beijing. “China and the DPRK are friendly and close neighbors and it is also an important tradition for us to maintain friendly exchanges,” Lu said, referring to North Korea’s formal name.
China and Russia, who both wield vetoes on the UN Security Council, have called for easing sanctions to reward Kim’s move last year to halt weapons tests and dismantle some testing facilities. Kim has proposed greater cooperation with fellow “socialist countries” to develop North Korea’s economy, suggesting an interest in attracting Chinese investment and technological support.