North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing this week, his first known trip abroad since he assumed control of the isolated state in 2011 and his first meeting with another head of state.
Chinese state media reported Wednesday that Kim made the visit, which was not announced publicly, in advance of planned meetings with South Korean and American leaders, including President Trump.
Kim, 34, said he is "willing to hold dialogue with the United States and hold summits between North Korea and the United States,” according to China’s official New China News Agency.
He also said denuclearization is possible if “South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts in good faith [and] create a peaceful and stable atmosphere,” and if “the current situation on the Korean peninsula has begun to develop in the positive direction,” the news agency reported.
The agency published 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; and speaking with other officials at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
Several other Chinese officials were in attendance, including Premier Li Keqiang, Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Huning and Vice President Wang Qishan.
The meetings unfolded in absolute secrecy. Speculation had swirled that Kim was in Beijing on Monday night, when a mysterious, armored North Korean train was spotted in the Chinese capital.
China is North Korea’s only major ally and trading partner. Yet the two countries’ relations have soured in recent years — Beijing has chafed against Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile development and bellicose rhetoric, and North Korea has asserted its independence from its neighbor. China has backed a raft of tough U.N. sanctions that have sharply limited exports of North Korean goods to China.
Yet Kim has made several gestures in recent months to defuse long-simmering tensions between his country and the U.S., South Korea and China. 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.
Xi appeared welcoming of the thaw.
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.”
“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.
“I think the motivation for Kim is more important,” he continued. “Kim was definitely worried about the prospect of the U.S. imposing strong preconditions on North Korea [for talks] … and I think some of the leverage has gone to China, and Chinese support for Kim’s feeling over denuclearization, which is an action-for-action, step-by-step approach.”
The first public indication of Kim’s visit came Monday night, when Japanese media reported on a 21-car train crossing from North Korea at the Chinese border city of Dandong. Other signs of a high-level visit were quickly apparent — train delays in and around Beijing, beefed-up security along a major thoroughfare and the barring of tourists from Tiananmen Square.
The Chinese government did not confirm Kim’s visit until after his train had left Beijing.
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.