North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visited China for an unofficial visit this week, Chinese and North Korean state media confirmed Wednesday.
This is believed to be Kim’s first trip abroad as leader since he came to power in 2011. It came in the run-up to summits with leaders from South Korea and the United States.
North’s official Korean Central News Agency reported that Kim Jong Un and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, made an “unofficial” visit from March 25 to 28 at the invitation of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping.
Kim traveled with all his top aides, including Choe Ryong Hae, often called the number two leader of North Korea and head of the powerful Organization and Guidance Department, and Ri Su Yong, the former ambassador to Switzerland and foreign minister, who is now a top official in the Politburo, KCNA said.
This week, the Chinese capital had been gripped by a mystery regarding an armored train that had chugged into Beijing Station on tight security on Monday.
Passengers disembarked and boarded limos. After nightfall, a motorcade drove to a state guesthouse where foreign dignitaries often stay.
But for days, Chinese officials and media and the South Korean government were quiet.
Chinese netizens looking for answers hit a wall. On Tuesday, three of the top 10 blocked terms on Weibo, a microblogging site, were “Kim Jong Un,” “North Korea” and “Fatty the third,” a popular Chinese nickname for Kim, according to freeweibo.com, a website that tracks censorship.
Chinese experts said a visit by a senior North Korean leader before the meetings with Moon and Trump made sense.
“At a possibly historic moment, before the start of a dramatic play on the Korean Peninsula, China was losing the spotlight,” said Cheng Xiaohe, a North Korea expert at Beijing’s Renmin University. A visit would restore Beijing’s leading role, he reasoned.
Zhang Liangui, a retired professor and Korea scholar at the Central Party School in Beijing, said, “The North Korea nuclear issue cannot be solved by solely relying on negotiations between North Korea and the United States, because, essentially, the nuclear issue is a regional security issue, not an issue of the relationship between North Korea and the United States.”
Experts also said secrecy was standard for North Korean visitors. “Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, employed a similar approach in the past,” said Lu Chao, a Korea expert at China’s Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences. “It’s usually a secret visit and then publicized after the North Korean leader has left.”
It was the example of Kim Jong Il’s 2011 visit that provided early clues that something may be up.
The detective work started Monday when train spotters and North Korea watchers noticed two suspicious developments: tight security at the China-North Korea border and train delays across the northeast.
On Monday afternoon, Japanese broadcaster NTV spotted an unusual train pulling into a station in the heart of the capital. It was green and yellow and looked a whole lot like the trains used by Kim Jong Il in 2011.
As the news started to spread, so did unverified videos of a motorcade speeding through the Chinese capital. Soon, unconfirmed reports of Kim sightings were spreading in chat groups.
The rest of the region was equally captivated – despite the lack of details.
“We noted this movement in the North a few days ago and have been paying close attention to it,” a senior official from South Korea’s presidential Blue House told local reporters.
Kim met multiple Chinese Communist Party leaders, Japan’s right-wing Sankei quoted an unnamed party official as saying. China and North Korea had been discussing the timing of Kim’s visit since the start of this year, with China insisting that North Korea must show its “willingness to work toward giving up its nuclear program,” according to the official.
Beijingers hoping to catch a glimpse of Kim – or an official who is not Kim – may be disappointed: By Tuesday afternoon, a motorcade was reportedly on its way back to Beijing Station.
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Emily Rauhala