North Korean leader Kim Jong-un arrived in China on Tuesday on an unannounced visit, in an apparent effort to co-ordinate with his only major ally ahead of a possible second summit with US President Donald Trump over denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.
Kim, accompanied by his wife Ri Sol-ju and senior officials including Kim Yong-chol – his right-hand man in diplomatic negotiations with the US and South Korea, arrived in Beijing on his private train.
He is visiting China from January 7 to 10 at the invitation of President Xi Jinping, state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
While official media gave few details, Beijing witnessed familiar traffic snarls like during Kim‘s previous visits during which traffic on the main thoroughfares were blocked for his convoy to pass.
The reclusive North Korean leader visited China thrice last year to meet with Xi before and after his first summit with Trump in Singapore in June last.
He came again, this time on his 36th birthday, in an apparent effort to co-ordinate with his only major ally ahead of a possible second summit with Trump over denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.
Kim‘s latest visit coincided with the second day of the crucial trade talks between the US and Chinese officials here.
Speculation had grown on Monday that Kim was possibly making his way to China after South Korea’s Yonhap news reported that a North Korean train had been seen crossing the border.
Both countries’ media confirmed the visit on Tuesday morning when Kim‘s distinctive green and yellow train arrived at a station in Beijing.
His visit to Beijing, which is stated to be closest ally of Pyongyang, comes at a time when China itself is locked in a trade war with the US over Trump’s demand to reduce the USD 375 billion trade deficit with the US.
With continued economic slowdown, China is under increasing pressure from Trump for reciprocal trade arrangements which could hit its economy further.
Trump while seeking Xi’s support in forcing Kim to relent and give up the nuclear and missile programme also blamed the Chinese leader last year for tardy progress after his first summit with Kim at Singapore in June.
Meanwhile, China refuted reports that it is using Kim as a bargaining chip to reach a trade deal with US to end the trade war between the world’s two top economies.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang, who faced a barrage of questions at the media briefing on the timing of Kim‘s visit, denied that Beijing is using Kim as a bargaining chip to negotiate a favourable trade deal with Trump.
Trump has been asking Xi to prevail on the North Korean leader to give up nuclear programme.
Lu said Kim‘s visit is a “coincidence” and nothing to do with the China-US trade talks. The timeline may have overlapped with the two events taking place at the same time, he said.
“We don’t need any other tactics to get our message across. The US is very clear about China’s position,” he said, reaffirming China’s commitment to reach a trade deal with US benefitting both the countries.
Kim‘s visit came only days after he warned of taking an alternative path if the United States does not ease sanctions and pressure on his isolated country.
The visit also comes amid reports that negotiations are under way for a second summit between Kim and Trump. The two met in June in Singapore for the first summit.
Since the Singapore summit, there is growing scepticism in the US over Kim delivering on his promise to do away with the nuclear programme despite Washington’s assurance over North Korea’s security.
Also, China and Russia — both the permanent members of the UN Security Council — have been putting pressure on the US to lift UN sanctions against North Korea.
But the US has been insisting on their continuance. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted that sanctions should be enforced “vigorously and without fail”.
Observers say the outcome of Xi-Kim meeting would be watched for its likely impact on the planned second summit meet between Kim and Trump.
In his tweet in August last year Trump had said North Korea was “under tremendous pressure from China because of our major trade disputes with the Chinese government”.
Meanwhile, Chinese and US officials continued closed door talks for the second and final day on Tuesday to work out a broad parameters of an agreement to be presented to their top leaders later.
The US and China have been locked in an escalating trade spat since early 2018, raising import tariffs on each other’s goods.
Last year, Trump imposed tariff hikes of up to 25 per cent on USD 250 billions of Chinese goods. The move prompted China to increase tariffs on USD 110 billions of US goods.
Trump and Xi has agreed to halt any further tariff increases for 90 days beginning January 1.