For what was said to be an unofficial trip, North Korea's Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un meant serious business when he visited Beijing this week.
Why Kim Jong-un is trying to get back on China’s good side
Yes, it really was Kim.
As an armored train carrying the dictator left China on Wednesday morning, secrecy gave way to elaborate coverage in state media of Kim's “unofficial visit” to the Chinese capital.
The North Korean leader told Chinese president Xi Jinping that he was ready to talk – with the US, its mortal enemy, and about denuclearization, something that China has long supported.
It was Kim’s first known trip abroad after he took power in 2011, and it happened just weeks before agreed meetings with his South Korean counterpart, President Moon Jae-in, late next month – and possibly with President Trump by the end of May.
China’s good graces
It’s no wonder that Kim met with Xi before any other heads of state, say analysts.
After a period of frosty ties between North Korea and China, Kim wanted to get back on Beijing's good side, says Bruce Bennett, senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation and a specialist in Northeast Asia.
“He had been waiting for an invitation to come see Xi.”
During the four-day visit, Xi gave Kim a warm welcome, hosting a banquet and a luncheon for the North Korean leader and his wife, Ri Sol-ju, as well as treating them to an art performance and a science showcase.
Kim – referred to warmly as “comrade” by China's state news agency – said that he had wanted to meet “in time” with Xi in person “out of comradeship and moral responsibility.”
“In this spring full of happiness and hopes, I believe my first meeting with General Secretary Xi Jinping will yield abundant fruits of friendship” between the two countries, Kim said at the banquet, according to Chinese state news agency Xinhua.
“A changed man”
For North Korea, spring couldn't come soon enough.
Last year China, historically North Korea's biggest ally, joined the US and others in punishing North Korea's nuclear provocations with toughened sanctions.
The isolated country must have felt the pinch, suggests Bennett.
“What Kim undoubtedly asked Xi to do was to communicate to the US that he's really a changed man, he's really prepared to give up his nuclear weapons," he says.
Earlier this month, Kim invited Trump to meet for negotiations over North Korea's nuclear program, reopening a window that was closed in 2009 as six-party talks failed.
Trump swiftly said yes to the invitation, delivered by a South Korean envoy in the White House.
The Chinese leadership was “surprised and concerned” when the meeting was announced, says Thomas Byrne, president of the Korea Society, despite publicly expressing support for it.
China, which chaired the failed six-party talks from 2003 to 2009, “wants to ensure that Kim Jong-un understands well its interests and concerns before Kim meets President Moon and President Trump,” says Byrne.
Received message last night from XI JINPING of China that his meeting with KIM JONG UN went very well and that KIM looks forward to his meeting with me. In the meantime, and unfortunately, maximum sanctions and pressure must be maintained at all cost!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 28, 2018
“A changed man” – really?
North Korea has long seen nuclear weapons as a way to stand tall among the world powers, and the only way to protect itself against countries like the US.
“He's now doing a 180 in terms of what he's saying," says Bennett, who is skeptical that Kim is prepared to give up his nuclear program.
“The question is, though: if he gives up his nuclear weapons, what asset does he have which makes him a peer of anybody, that makes him other than a third-world minor country?”
That question will have to be answered in the summits in coming weeks.
What's different about these talks compared to the six-party talks is that “there is a recognition by the US and South Korean governments not to repeat the mistakes of the past and to continue to exert maximum pressure” on the North, says Byrne of the Korea Society.
North Korea's ruling party and its military have a limit on what they can tolerate from the sanctions, he suggests – and Kim doesn't want to find out just where that line lies.