Chinese President Xi Jinping (2nd right) and wife Peng Liyuan (right) are seen with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his wife Ri Sol Ju in Beijing on March 27. The North Korean leader received a warm welcome during a secretive trip as both sides sought to repair frayed ties ahead of landmark summits with Seoul and Washington. Photo: AFP/ via North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has placed himself back at the center of the game, as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s visit to Beijing adds yet another piece to the fast-shifting diplomatic chess board that is the Korean peninsula.

At a time when the youthful and diplomatically inexperienced Kim is preparing for separate summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump, the meeting appears to herald a warming in recently frosty relations between Beijing and Pyongyang.

During the meeting, which eventuated after an invitation from Xi, Kim referred to multilateral diplomatic maneuvers. “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, according to China’s Foreign Ministry, as reported by Reuters.

While the timing of the visit by the reclusive North Korean leader – who is not known to have traveled outside his country since assuming power after his father’s death in 2011 – took the world by surprise, it had been anticipated by North Korea watchers, who cited previous precedents.

A secret, ‘unofficial’, but not unexpected trip

Rumors that Kim was on the move were sparked after North Korea watchers reported unusual signs at a North Korean-China rail border crossing point on the Yalu River. That led to speculation among news outlets that Kim was en route to Beijing, in his father’s famous private train.

A picture from North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (C) waving from his train as it prepares to depart from Beijing railway station. Photo: AFP/ KCNA.

Yesterday, Western news outlets in Beijing said that Kim himself had arrived in the capital, citing unnamed sources, but official Chinese officials stayed tight-lipped. Only this morning, did Beijing, after staying mum about the two-day trip for 24 hours, confirm it had happened and released details about what it dubbed an “unofficial” visit.

Chinese TV news footage of the visit was replayed around the world. It showed Kim and Xi inspecting an honor guard, posing for photos together, and chatting with each other’s family members. Kim was accompanied by his wife Ri Sol-ju, and his sister, Kim Yo-jong.

Taking notes

In what was perhaps a calculated move by Beijing, some footage showed Kim taking notes at a meeting. In North Korea, Kim customarily dispenses “on the spot guidance,” while his officials feverishly write down his comments in notebooks.

Chinese reports made clear the amicable but weighty nature of the first meeting between Kim and Xi.

“Xi said Kim’s current visit to China, which came at a special time and was of great significance, fully embodied the great importance … attached to relations between the two countries and the two parties,” Chinese press agency Xinhua reported.

While the world expressed surprise at the trip, seasoned North Korea watchers had anticipated it happening at some point prior to the upcoming summits.

“If you look at previous two inter-Korean summits, the North Korean leader visited China before he met the South Korean president, so this was natural, considering the long-term traditional alliance relationship between China and North Korea,” said Sun Ki-young of Seoul’s Korean National Institute of Unification. “It is natural for Kim to go there to rebuild North Korea relations with China before they go onto the international stage.”

“It is customary for the leader of North Korea to visit China at critical points like this,” Daniel Tudor, co-author of “North Korea Confidential” added. “I think that to the extent that everyone is talking, this is a positive.”

It is not known if Kim will continue his trip, via the Trans-Siberian Railway, to consult with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow – a trip his father also made.

Reasons to be neighborly

The meeting came at the invitation of Xi, who looked more comfortable in the news footage than Kim. Since the current diplomatic frenzy was sparked by Kim’s New Year’s broadcast offering better relations with South Korea, it has been Seoul which has been largely setting the agenda – most notably, arranging an inter-Korean summit for April and a first-ever North Korea-US summit in May.

Amid these various maneuvers, Beijing – which invested significant political capital in the eventually futile six-party talks from 2003 to 2009 on North Korean denuclearization – has largely been sidelined.

The Xi-Kim powwow signals a possible upgrade in Beijing-Pyongyang relations – which would be mutually beneficial.

“My hunch is that, after the decision to hold a summit with South Korea and the US, Kim probably needed a buffer in the event of failure, or of some trouble with the US after the summit with President Trump,” Sun of KINU said. “On the other hand, China now has the leverage to jump into the multilateral dialog – so probably there is a shared interest between the two countries.”

Beijing, Pyongyang’s savior in the 1950-53 Korean War, has also been its premier economic supporter since the fall of communism in Europe and famines devastated the North Korea economy in the mid-1990s. Beijing benefits from North Korea as a strategic cushion against South Korean, Japan and US troops on its northeastern flank, while fearing chaos and refugee flows if conflict reignites. But in recent years, China has been irked by North Korea’s increasingly bellicose behavior and is further alarmed by the possibility that such behavior could provoke a US attack.

Under Kim and Xi, North Korea-China relations have fallen to perhaps their lowest ebb ever. Kim, having taken power in 2011, had his uncle, Jang Song-taek, executed. Jang, a long-term regime player, had been North Korea’s point man on Beijing relations, with extensive political and – it is believed – commercial contacts in China. Rumors also suggest that Pyongyang may have had Kim’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, assassinated in a nerve gas attack at Kuala Lumpur airport in order to pre-empt an alleged Chinese plot to replace Jong-un with Jong-nam.

Beijing and Pyongyang had much to discuss. While Kim seeks a fallback supporter to hedge against the failure of talks with Trump, Xi, who has exerted more sanctions pressure than ever before at Washington’s behest, is likely irked by imminent US trade measures.

Kim is believed to be suffering under the current sanctions. Under the Trump administration, the idea behind sanctions – which have been in place since 2005 – has expanded from having an impact on the regime and key figures to strangling the overall North Korean economy.

Imports of Chinese fuel and exports of North Korean coal are particularly critical; Kim almost certainly wants Xi to loosen restrictions in these two areas.

While international observers have spotted Chinese ships fueling North Korean ships on the high seas, it is not clear that these moves were made with Beijing’s approval.

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