It had the trappings of a historic summit — a mysterious train, a motorbike convoy, a military welcome and extraordinary displays of flowers and flags.
When North Korean leader Kim Jong Un came to Beijing this week to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, it marked the first time that Kim is known to have traveled outside his country since becoming its leader in 2011, and his first meeting of any kind with another head of state. But its true significance may become apparent only after two more summits.
The first, in April, will bring together Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. The second, should it take place, would pair the North Korean leader with President Trump.
Experts say that Kim was probably eager to shore up support from China, Pyongyang’s main trading partner and ally, for additional leverage in those discussions. He may also want to drive a wedge between the U.S. and China, which have in the last year joined forces to implement draconian sanctions on Pyongyang.
China, meanwhile, is striving to remain central to discussions — it’s anxious that losing a place at the table could carry vast consequences for its national security, experts say. Beijing is about 500 miles from Pyongyang, and does not want a war in its backyard.
“I think [the meeting] shows some sense of urgency on both sides,” said Go Myung-Hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. “I think Xi Jinping now understands that China was being sidelined in these discussions that were taking place between North Korea, the U.S. and South Korea.”
China and North Korea enjoy a strong historical bond, with their communist roots and their alliance during the 1950-53 Korean War. Yet their relations have soured, especially throughout last year, as Pyongyang tested more than two dozen missiles and, in September, a nuclear bomb. Beijing fears nothing more than instability and has repeatedly warned Pyongyang over its provocations.
In the Beijing meetings, Kim, who is in his 30s, said his country could potentially denuclearize “if South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts in good faith [and] create a peaceful and stable atmosphere,” according to the official New China News Agency.
The meeting spotlighted a high-wire act for both China and North Korea in advance of Kim’s planned meetings with South Korean and U.S. leaders this spring.
“What does Kim Jong Un want? Let’s be clear. He wants to break what appears to be a united front between China and the U.S. on the North Korea issue,” said Andrei Lankov, director of the research firm Korea Risk Group and a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul.
“Kim has likely made a lot of promises, not all of which are going to be kept, in order to prove to his Chinese hosts that it’s in Chinese interests not to be harsh to North Korea,” he continued. “I can imagine him making promises to behave himself for a while, at least as long as Trump is in the White House. But it’s also possible that he’ll try to terrify China by the increasingly likely prospect of an American military operation in Korea.”
Trump, in a morning tweet, reported he had received a message from Xi describing the visit and saying Kim “looks forward to his meeting with me.”
“In the meantime, and unfortunately,” he added, “maximum sanctions and pressure must be maintained at all cost!”
Trump predicted that Kim may finally be coming around and “will do what is right.” But Kim was clearly using the China appearance to strengthen his own hand before any talks involving the Koreas. Kim wants to include the more sympathetic posture of China, while Xi wants to continue to play the role of regional power broker.
In their meetings, Xi was careful to treat Kim as an equal. Both men were accompanied by their wives, a sight not usually seen.
Kim is likely to similarly parlay any meeting with Trump as proof of his international stature — a gambit that Trump may not be well-equipped to counter. Kim will probably declare that it is his nuclear arsenal that has earned him the world’s respect.
Xi and Kim may also have used their meeting to strategize in the likely event that little comes of a summit with Trump.
“We are now heading into an extremely complicated stage of diplomacy and negotiations,” Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, said in an email. “Trump needs to get good and competent people in place to not only do the internal strategic thinking and advise the president, but to ensure that in our external diplomacy there is cohesion. The worst outcome would be for [North Korea] to begin driving wedges between the U.S., China, South Korea, Japan and Russia to try to gain advantages.”
Japan, which has taken an especially hard line against North Korea and was caught off guard by Trump’s announcement that he would sit down with Kim, has so far been left out of these machinations. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is scheduled to meet with Trump next month, and he is likely to warn the president against the many pitfalls that someone as wily as Kim might put in the way of an inexperienced and unsuspecting Trump.
A mild panic seems to be setting in among Japanese leadership as it is left out not only of the Trump-Kim summit but also Kim’s trip this week to Beijing. Asked Tuesday about the trip, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono was reduced to saying he hoped for an “explanation” from Beijing.
This week’s meetings unfolded in absolute secrecy. Speculation had swirled that Kim was in Beijing on Monday night when a mysterious, armored North Korean train arrived in the Chinese capital (it left on Tuesday afternoon). Chinese state media first reported the visit on Wednesday and said that it lasted from Sunday to Wednesday, without explaining the discrepancy.
Chinese and North Korean media made prominent shows of the visit, with the New China News Agency publishing a 2,646-word article and North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun running a photo from the meeting on its front page.
The agencies showed photos of Kim and Xi shaking hands against a backdrop of North Korean and Chinese flags; posing with their wives, Ri Sol Ju and Peng Liyuan; toasting at a banquet; and speaking with other officials at the Great Hall of the People, a lush-carpeted meeting hall in Beijing.
“The luncheon hall where Kim Jong Un and Ri Sol Ju sat face to face with Xi Jinping and Peng Liyuan was overflowing with a harmonious and intimate atmosphere from its beginning to the end,” North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency reported.
Trump and the United Nations have imposed several rounds of sanctions on the already-isolated country — and China, breaking with years of precedent, has largely enforced them, sharply limiting exports of North Korean goods to China.
Kim has made several gestures in recent months to defuse long-simmering tensions. Last month, North Korea sent a delegation, led by Kim’s sister Kim Yo Jong, to the Winter Olympics in South Korea. The charm offensive paved the way for talks with South Korean officials and, later, a historic offer to meet Trump, who quickly accepted.
The New China News Agency reported that Xi, referring to the North by its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, said, “China is willing to continue to play a constructive role in the issue of the peninsula and work together with all parties including the DPRK to jointly promote the relaxation of the situation on the peninsula.”
By traveling on a train, Kim followed precedents set by his grandfather and father, North Korea's two previous leaders.
His grandfather Kim Il Sung, who ruled the country from its founding in 1948 until his death in 1994, and his father, Kim Jong Il, who ruled from 1994 until his death in 2011, both traveled abroad on heavily armored luxury trains.
Lankov, the professor, said that the three Kims have all proved remarkably adept at getting their way with foreign governments.
“I’ve been studying North Korea for 35 years, and I’ve written books looking at their political and social history over the past 70 years,” he said. “I can assure you North Koreans have so far managed to outsmart everybody. They were remarkably good at playing Russia and China against each other in the 1950s and ’60s. They’ve outsmarted Americans a number of times, and they’ve outsmarted South Koreans too. I don’t know why we shouldn’t expect they won’t outsmart them once again.”