China Hosts Surprise Visit by Kim Jong Un Amid US Tensions

A car in the motorcade of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is seen in Beijing on January 8, 2019.(Photo by Nicolas ASFOURI / AFP/Getty Images)

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made his fourth visit to China this week, arriving in the country for a three-day visit at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping, according to state media.

Kim’s visit — which coincides with the young leader’s birthday — comes as US and Chinese negotiators are trying to hash out the ongoing trade war between those two nations, one that is already starting to bite in China.

In a report Tuesday, the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said Kim left Pyongyang Monday afternoon with his wife Ri Sol Ju. He was also accompanied by key diplomats, KCNA added, including Kim Yong Chol, who has overseen negotiations with the US and other foreign countries.

“He was warmly seen off by leading officials of the Party, government and armed forces organs at the railway station,” the news agency said.

Trade war timing

Relations between China and the US have worsened considerably since the Singapore summit between Kim and President Donald Trump, amid a deepening — though temporarily paused — trade war.

Harry J. Kazianis, an analyst with the Washington-based Center for the National Interest, said observers “should not be surprised Kim Jong Un has traveled to China to for a summit with Xi Jinping.”

“Kim is eager to remind the Trump Administration that he does have diplomatic and economic options besides what Washington and Seoul can offer,” Kazianis said. “China could easily turn Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ strategy into nothing more than a memory as almost all North Korea’s external trade flows through China in some capacity.”

He added that the timing from China’s perspective “could not be any better,” as it comes amid trade talks with the US and “shows Beijing clearly has a North Korea card to play if it sees fit.”

However, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking to CNBC Monday, said he felt the two matters were unrelated.

“The Chinese have been very clear to us that these are separate issues,” Pompeo said. “Their behavior has demonstrated that as well and we appreciate that. China has actually been a good partner in our efforts to reduce the risk to the world from North Korea’s nuclear capability; I expect they will continue to do so.”

Global Times, a nationalist state-run Chinese tabloid, cited an unnamed expert as saying “Kim still believes China can help him make breakthroughs in internal and diplomatic situations.”

The North Korean leader “needs a breakthrough on the deadlock for improving ties with the US, and he believes China is the key,” the Chinese expert said.

Key visits

According to South Korean media, the North Korean leader’s heavily-armored train crossed the border between North Korea and China late on Monday night local time.

The trip is Kim’s fourth trip to China. The first, in March 2018, kicked off a flurry of international diplomacy by the young North Korean leader last year which culminated in twin summits with South Korea and the US.

China remains North Korea’s closest ally, and most important trading partner. Kim’s last visit to the country came days after he met Trump in Singapore in June.

Talks are currently under way for a second summit between Kim and Trump, something which may be a key item of discussion between the North Korean and Chinese leaders in Beijing this week.

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