North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, left, shake hands at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing Image Credit: AP

Beijing (AFP): North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has made his first ever foreign trip as leader to meet China’s president, vowing he is “committed to denuclearisation” and willing to hold summits with the South and the US.

The secretive visit was confirmed Wednesday by Chinese and North Korean state media which said Kim was treated to a lavish stay in a show of unity after relations were battered by Beijing’s support of UN sanctions against Pyongyang.

Kim had not met China’s President Xi Jinping since taking over after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in 2011.

The young leader told Xi that he was ready to hold a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in as well as US President Donald Trump, according to China’s Xinhua news agency.

“The issue of denuclearisation 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 realisation of peace,” Kim said.

South Korea said last month after talks with Kim in Pyongyang that he would consider abandoning his nuclear weapons in exchange for US security guarantees, and flagged a halt to all missile and nuclear tests while talks were under way.

Analysts said Xi likely wanted to see Kim to ensure North Korea does not cut a deal with Trump that hurts Chinese interests during a summit that is expected to be held in May.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shaking hands during their meeting in Beijing. AFP

Beijing had appeared sidelined by Pyongyang’s approaches to Seoul and Washington, but Kim’s visit puts China firmly back at the centre of the diplomatic game.

“They don’t want to see a grand deal between the US and North Korea that suddenly makes them great friends,” said Bill Bishop, publisher of the Sinocism China Newsletter.

But Deng Yuwen, an independent Chinese international relations scholar, said that North Korea needed to turn to its old ally ahead of the US summit, as Kim will be sceptical that Trump will guarantee the security of his regime.

“North Korea needs the big brother to protect it at a crucial moment,” Deng told AFP.

And Trump’s decision to draft in hawkish former UN ambassador John Bolton as his new national security advisor last week “will make Kim more vigilant,” Deng said.

Confirmation of the visit ended 24 hours of speculation about the identity of the North Korean visitor after Japanese media spotted a green train, similar to the one used by Kim’s father, arriving in Beijing on Monday and departing the following day.

While Chinese officials refused to confirm Kim’s presence, a heavy police presence at key venues, motorcades driven under police escort, and barricades in the city centre fuelled the belief that Kim had come to pay his respects.

Frayed ties

His visit to China came as a surprise given the state of relations between the Cold War-era allies, which fought together in the 1950-53 Korean War.

Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un meet at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. AP

China chaired six-party talks on North Korea that collapsed a decade ago, but its call to revive that forum have not been heeded so far and it appeared to be on the margins when South Korea announced that Kim had offered to meet with Moon and Trump.

Frustrated by its neighbour’s nuclear weapons programme and under pressure from Trump, China has backed a raft of UN sanctions, using its economic leverage to squeeze Kim’s regime.

At the same time, Beijing fears the collapse of the regime in Pyongyang and the instability it would bring, potentially sending waves of refugees into China and the possibility of US troops stationed on its border in a unified Korea.

The tensions prompted North Korea’s official news agency to issue a rare critique of China last year, warning of “grave consequences” if Pyongyang’s patience was tested further.

But the Chinese foreign ministry said at the time that Beijing was consistent in its support for “good neighbourly and friendly cooperation” with the North.

In November, Chinese envoy Song Tao became the first senior Chinese official to visit North Korea for more than a year, though he did not meet Kim.

On March 18, the Global Times published a friendlier editorial.

“A severe difference between Beijing and Pyongyang over nuclear issues is a reality, but it should not be the whole picture of ties between the two sides,” the daily wrote.

“North Korea is a respectable country.”

While Kim Jong Un and Moon are due to meet at the border truce village of Panmunjom, the venue for the North Korean leader’s meeting with Trump has yet to be announced.

The Demilitarized Zone that divides the two Koreas is the most plausible locations for the Kim-Trump talks, but Beijing could serve as a more neutral location.

High-level inter-Korean talks are scheduled for Thursday to pave the way for the Moon-Kim meeting, and discussions have also begun for the Trump summit.


Planes and armoured trains: The Kims' foreign trips

SEOUL (AFP): The first sign that Kim Jong Un was making his inaugural overseas trip as leader of North Korea was the appearance of an armoured train in China.

His predecessors, father Kim Jong Il and grandfather Kim Il Sung, also preferred rail for their domestic and overseas travels.

International childhood, domestic rule

Kim Jong Un studied in Switzerland in the 1990s, including at the International School of Berne, along with his brother and sister, and is believed to have visited Germany and France during the period.

Xi Jinping walks with Kim Jong Un, in this still image taken from a video. Reuters

Unconfirmed South Korean news reports said Jong Un and his brother Jong Chol visited Tokyo Disneyland as children using fake passports to enter Japan in 1991.

Infamously his eldest brother Jong Nam - assassinated at Kuala Lumpur's international airport last year in a killing widely blamed on Pyongyang - tried to do the same in 2001, using a Dominican Republic passport, but was stopped at Japanese immigration.

Kim Jong Un is known to travel by air domestically, and is said to have accompanied his father on a 2011 train trip to China, but is believed to have not previously left the North since ascending to power.

In 2015 the Kremlin announced Kim would be attending ceremonies to mark the 70th anniversary of the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, but in the end the visit was cancelled with no reason given.

Fear of flying

Kim's father Kim Jong Il was renowned for his fear of flying, limiting his foreign trips to overland journeys to China and Russia by armoured train — the same mode of transport used to reach Beijing this week.

His 2011 trip to China was a marathon 6,000-kilometre journey taking in Beijing, Nanjing and Shanghai among other destinations.

The late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (left) and his son and designated heir Kim Jong-un (right) watch from a podium as soldiers march in a parade celebrating the 65th anniversary of the ruling Korean Workers Party in Pyongyang, North Korea, on October 10 2010.

One of his previous visits came in 2000, shortly before the first inter-Korean summit with South Korean president Kim Dae-jung.

Kim Jong Il also took trains to Russia in 2001, when he went to Moscow, and 2011, when he met then-president Dmitry Medvedev in the Siberian city of Ulan-Ude.

At the time residents near the Bureya rail station were told to stay in their houses and not look out of their windows as his armoured train arrived.

Air miles

Of the three Kims, the North's founding father Kim Il Sung was the most frequent overseas traveller.

He secretly visited Moscow in 1949 to meet Stalin and seek support for his plan to reunify the divided Korean peninsula by force.

The following year, Kim Il Sung's forces invaded the South, triggering the Korean War that pitted Pyongyang's Chinese- and Russian-backed troops against a US-led United Nations alliance.

In 1961, Kim Il Sung returned to Moscow to meet then-General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev and the two countries signed a mutual defence pact.

He was a prominent figure in the Non-Aligned Movement and attended a conference of Asian and African countries in 1965 in Bandung, Indonesia, bringing along his son.

In 1990, he travelled secretly to China, reportedly to discuss warming relations between South Korea and the Soviet Union with Chinese leaders including Jiang Zemin.

Kim Il Sung's longest train trip took place in 1984, on a tour of the Soviet Union and other East European countries - Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Romania.

The carriages Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il used for their travels are both on display in the Kumsusan mausoleum in Pyongyang where their bodies lie in state - with a Macintosh computer on Kim Jong Il's desk.

North Korea's Kim Jong Un in 10 dates

SEOUL (AFP): With an unannounced visit to Beijing, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has finally taken his place on the global stage.

Kim Jong Un is seen during the meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing. Reuters

The youngest son of Kim Jong Il and his third wife, a Korean dancer born in Japan, Kim is the grandson of the revered Kim Il Sung, who in 1948 founded the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the North's official name.

There are scant details about Kim's life before he took the helm of his isolated country; Pyongyang has never confirmed either his birthday or the year of his birth, but the US Treasury department has given it as January 8, 1984 in a sanctions document. There is also speculation about 1982 and 1983.

Here are some significant moments in his leadership:

September 2010: Kim, educated in Switzerland, is made a four-star general and given senior ruling party posts. For the first time, state media publish a photograph of him as an adult.

December 2011: Still in his late 20s, he is named "great successor" after the death of his father. His appointment is at the expense of his two older brothers.

December 2012: As Supreme Commander of the army and head of the ruling Workers' Party, Kim orders the launching of a long-range rocket. The following year he oversees a third nuclear test, raising tensions on the peninsula and prompting a new round of UN sanctions.

December 2013: As part of a purge, Kim's uncle by marriage Jang Song Thaek, who was once his political mentor and the North's unofficial number two, is put to death on an array of charges including treason and corruption.

February 2017: Kim's estranged half-brother Kim Jong Nam is assassinated by two women using the banned nerve agent VX at Kuala Lumpur international airport. Seoul accuses Pyongyang of having masterminded the attack.

July 2017: North Korea conducts two intercontinental ballistic missile tests and Kim declares all US territory within range.

September 2017: Amid spiralling international tensions over its missile programme, North Korea conducts its sixth nuclear test - its fourth under Kim and by far its largest to date.

February 2018: In a blaze of publicity Kim sends his sister Kim Yo Jong to the Winter Olympics in the South, where she shares a historic handshake with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the opening ceremony. She passes on Kim's invitation for Moon to attend a summit in Pyongyang.

March 8, 2018: Kim's invitation to US President Donald Trump to hold a summit is revealed.

March 26, 2018: A North Korean train arrives in Beijing, bringing Kim on his first foreign trip as leader.


Analysis: Kim's trip shows China's value in Korean diplomacy

SEOUL, South Korea (AP): North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's surprise visit to Beijing makes clear what has been easily forgotten amid the whirlwind of diplomatic developments in past months: China still plays a major role in efforts to end North Korea's nuclear program.

Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping walk together in Beijing. AP

Just how much is still open to debate, but the visit shows Kim Jong Un hasn't forgotten his only major ally despite recent antipathy between the countries and bombshell announcements that the young North Korean leader will hold summits with his foes in Washington and Seoul. China, after all, provides the vital trade, aid and diplomatic support that keep the North and its broken economy afloat.

Because of North Korea's dependence on China, it makes sense that Pyongyang would consult with Beijing before any major approach to the West.

Kim, on his first visit overseas since taking power since 2011, would have intended to remove any Chinese concern that it's being reduced to a bystander as Pyongyang attempts to shake up regional politics by reaching out to Seoul and Washington. In demonstrating its ties with China, North Korea could also send a message to Washington and Seoul, showing it has other options should the summits fall apart.

It's also possible that the Kim-Xi meeting would have been planned long before Kim's outreach to South Korea and the United States. Kim Dong-yub, an analyst from Seoul's Institute for Far Eastern Studies, said the summit was a predictable outcome between two leaders who believe they have completed consolidating their power at home and are now shifting their focus to external stability.

"So what's next for Kim Jong Un - Russia?" said Kim, the analyst.

North Korea's Korean Central News Agency said the two leaders "deeply" exchanged opinions on mutual relations and the security environment on the Korean Peninsula. The agency said without specifying that Kim called for stronger "strategic communication" and "strategic, tactical cooperation" to bolster unity and cooperation between the traditional allies and take relations to the next step.

"The North obviously believes maintaining its traditional relationship with China would give it stronger influence over the United States," said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University. "Even if the situation surrounding its talks with Seoul and Washington plays out well for North Korea, it still needs China's help. And if the situation doesn't work out, North Korea will surely need Chinese support."

It may also be that the North recognizes some hard realities.

North Korea's diplomatic outreach to South Korea and the United States followed an unusually provocative year of weapons tests and has been seen as an attempt, in part, to improve a struggling economy crushed the heavy sanctions those tests brought about. North Korea's provocations also took a toll on relations with Beijing.

Despite their decades-long alliance, forged during the 1950-53 Korean War, China has played a crucial role in international pressure against North Korea over its nuclear program and has signed on to increasingly strict U.N. sanctions. China's strengthened actions in recent months - including restrictions on oil supply - may have significantly raised North Korea's need to seek a diplomatic breakthrough.

For Beijing, it wants to be seen as a custodian of peace and stability in the region and also a larger player in world diplomacy as it competes with the United States for influence in Asia.

But it also has its own interests in mind. China is unhappy about having an emerging nuclear menace at its doorstep, but also doesn't want to see a collapse of a next door government it sees as a buffer state against U.S. ally South Korea.

China has long advocated for a restoration of dialogue along the lines of the six-nation talks involving itself, North Korea, the United States, South Korea, Japan and Russia, accompanied by a pause in U.S.-South Korean war games and the North's suspension of nuclear and missile activities.

If the North's talks with South Korea and the United States fall apart, Pyongyang could move to demonstrate its nuclear weapons and missile capabilities again.

Du Hyeogn Cha, a visiting scholar at Seoul's Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said in that case it's likely that North Korea would seek China's commitment for future support, or at least a promise it won't hit the country too hard with more sanctions should it resume weapons tests.

Key moments in North Korea-China relationship

SEOUL (AP): North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's surprise visit to China makes clear that Beijing, the North's only major ally and chief provider of energy and trade that keeps the country's broken economy afloat, will have a major role in any effort to rein in the North's nuclear program.

Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un posing during their meeting in Beijing. AFP

A look at key moments in relations between North Korea and China:

October 1949: North Korea and China establish diplomatic relations.

October 1950: China intervenes in the Korean War and engages in combat with U.S.-led forces, saving North Korea from defeat. The war ends in 1953 with an armistice.

November 1958: North Korea founder Kim Il Sung visits China, shortly after China withdraws troops from the peninsula. He successfully requests economic aid in meetings with Chinese leader Mao Zedong. Kim goes on to visit China and the former Soviet Union many times through the 1960s while maintaining a balancing act between the competing communist powers and consolidating his leadership at home.

April 1982: Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping visits North Korea to attend celebrations of Kim Il Sung's 70th birthday. Kim visits China five months later to discuss his plans to pass his leadership to his son, Kim Jong Il, and also reassure Beijing that the North wouldn't tilt toward the Soviet Union once he's no longer in power.

August 1992: China establishes diplomatic relations with South Korea, complicating its relations with North Korea.

May 2000: Kim Jong Il, who took power in 1994 after his father's death, makes the first of his eight visits to China as the North Korean leader. The trip was reportedly aimed at consulting with the Chinese leadership weeks before Kim's summit with then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, which opened a temporary era of rapprochement between the rivals. Kim, rumored to have had a fear of flying, traveled to China on a green-and-yellow armored train that was also used by his son this week.

August 2003: North Korea joins first round of six-nation nuclear talks in Beijing, which include China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States, which continue periodically over the next several years before stalling.

December 2011: Kim Jong Un takes power after the death of his father.

May 2013: Senior North Korean official Choe Ryong Hae visits China as Kim's special envoy and meets with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

October 2015: Senior Chinese official Liu Yunshan visits the North and attends a military parade with Kim.

March 2018: Kim visits Beijing for a meeting with Xi, weeks after the announcements of his planned summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and President Donald Trump.