Something is afoot in China-North Korea relations. Starting Monday afternoon local time, reports — first from DailyNK and then other sources, including NKNews — picked up on a curious development: the armored train that former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il would use to travel to China on official visits had crossed the North Korea-China border.
In the hours since, there has been frenzied speculation about what could possibly be a momentous overseas trip by Kim Jong-un — his first since coming to power in December 2011 — to China. If Kim is in China and meets Xi, it would be the first meeting between him and any foreign head of state or government. As of this writing, it remains unclear that Kim himself is in China, but certainly someone of importance from North Korea has gone to China for a major visit ahead of two unusual diplomatic events on the calendar ahead: an inter-Korean summit, the third of its kind, in late-April, and what could be the first-ever U.S.-North Korea summit in May.
If Kim himself hasn’t come to Beijing, the other possibility is that the train and the accompanying large delegation seen in video footage from Beijing carried Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s younger sister, and Kim Yong-nam, North Korea’s ceremonial head of state. Kim Yo-jong and Kim Yong-nam have certainly established precedence as a high-level diplomatic duo; they spearheaded North Korea’s successful diplomacy in South Korea during the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. Kim Yo-jong became the first member of North Korea’s ruling Kim family to travel south of the military demarcation line separating the two Koreas during that trip. (She appears to command her brother’s absolute trust.)
Either way, the significance of a large North Korean delegation arriving in Beijing should not be understated. Relations between China and North Korea have atrophied from their historic highs since 2013, when Kim Jong-un executed his influential uncle, Jang Song-thaek, long seen as the point man in Pyongyang for the China-North Korea relationship. While the two countries have maintained close ties, with some high-level interactions, including a 2016 visit by North Korea’s former Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong. (Ri’s visit produced the first picture of Chinese President Xi Jinping with a senior North Korean official since Xi became president in 2013.)
China continues to overwhelmingly represent the bulk of North Korea’s overseas trade. The two countries have a 1961 mutual defense pact that is thought to have been reinterpreted in recent years by Beijing to only apply in the event that North Korea is attacked by foreign forces.
Tuesday morning has now set in on Beijing and we may soon learn of the mysterious visitor or visitors from North Korea to China. Either way, The Diplomat will be watching events in Beijing closely in the next days.