At 2pm on Monday, a mysterious emerald green train arrived in Beijing.
Did Kim Jong-un just make a flying visit to Beijing?
A heavy security presence greeted the locomotive as it pulled into the capital’s railway station. More than a dozen services had been put on hold to clear the tracks.
Who could possibly command such respect from the Chinese government?
Multiple sources say the VIP passenger arriving on Monday was none other than Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s supreme leader.
The train bore a strong resemblance to the armored train Kim Jong-un’s father Kim Jong-il favored for his visits to China.
A military expert close to the People’s Liberation Army has confirmed to the South China Morning Post that the passenger was indeed Kim.
The Chinese government has yet to formally confirm the visit. If Kim is indeed visiting Beijing, it would be his first overseas visit since taking over from his father in 2011.
Professor Cheng Xiaohe at the Renmin University in Beijing told Inkstone that the chances of the mysterious passenger being Kim are high. “China would not give such high level treatment to anyone else but the supreme leader,” he said.
Smoothing the divide
Long-time Korea watchers have told Inkstone that they believe Kim is visiting the Chinese leadership in order to soothe any ruffled feathers, ahead of an upcoming meeting between himself and US President Donald Trump in May.
John Hemmings from the Asia Studies Centre at The Henry Jackson Society said China fears it is losing influence with North Korea. The two sides have had a complex, intertwined relationship since the Korean War in the 1950s.
The much anticipated upcoming meeting between Washington and Pyongyang was arranged directly between the two sides, instead of through China, their traditional go-between.
“Beijing must be sweating right now that the US and North Korea have arranged a summit all without their say-so,” Hemmings told Inkstone.
“I think that Kim's visit will be to ostensibly save China's face, coordinate policy, reassure Beijing of no more surprises, and also remind Pyongyang how much it depends on Beijing for economic growth,” Hemmings added.
Renmin University’s Professor Cheng Xiaohe agreed that the Chinese government is feeling marginalized.
“A visit by Kim to China will resolve the awkward situation immediately,” he added. “It would be stupid for North Korea to start negotiating with Washington and Seoul without talking to China first.”
The visit comes amid easing tensions on the Korean peninsula. Officials from North and South Korea, which split at the end of World War II, have agreed to hold talks. And President Trump is soon expected to sit down with Kim.
China is North Korea’s biggest economic partner and its main source of food, energy and consumer products. Over decades, China has helped to prop up North Korea, shielding Pyongyang from international sanctions in order to avoid regime collapse.
Still, their relationship has become strained as a result of Pyongyang’s missile launches. Economic data shows trade between the two has fallen in the wake of the tests.
From China’s point of view, stability is the most important feature of the Korean peninsula. Beijing tolerates the status quo because it sees North Korea as a buffer between democratic South Korea, where tens of thousands of US military troops are stationed.
China’s last special envoy Song Tao was given a cold welcome when he visited North Korea in November 2017, which means a visit from Kim would carry a special significance for the Chinese side.
After further commotion and heightened security around Beijing Station on Tuesday afternoon, it seems Kim has already concluded his trip and is headed home.