After days of intense speculation, Chinese media confirmed on March 28 that Kim Jong-un had actually been in China for a three-day visit. It was Kim’s first overseas trip, and his first meeting with another top leader, since he took over as North Korea’s leader in December 2011.
According to a news release from Xinhua, Kim traveled to Beijing on March 25 along with his wife, Ri Sol-ju, and a delegation including United Front Department director Kim Yong-chol (who previously represented North Korea at the Closing Ceremony of the Winter Olympics in South Korea) and Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho. While the visit was described as “unofficial,” Beijing seems to have rolled out the red carpet for Kim and company. In addition to formal talks in the Great Hall of the People, Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan hosted Kim and Ri for a banquet and “art performance.” On the Chinese side, Premier Li Keqiang, Vice President Wang Qishan, and Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Huning also attended talks.
The lengthy visit summary from Xinhua is designed to hammer home one particular point: that China and North Korea’s “traditional friendship” is alive and well. There has been much talk of a rift in the relationship since Kim Jong-un came to power. In a widely commented-on move, Xi himself broke with longstanding Chinese tradition in 2014 by visiting Seoul without stopping in Pyongyang first. Since then, diplomacy between China and North Korea has moved in fits and starts, with high-level visits often followed by setbacks or long stretches of silence. According to the Beyond Parallel project of the Washington, DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, under Xi and Kim Jong-un, China and North Korea have seen their fewest high-level exchanges since the Mao Zedong era.
Most recently, China seemed to have been left out of the recent flurry of diplomacy between North and South Korea. With a summit between Kim and South Korea’s Moon Jae-in in the works for April, and even talk of a meeting between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in May, the absence of a Kim-Xi meeting had loomed large. After all, North Korea is still technically at war with both South Korea and the United States; what would it say about the vaunted China-North Korea relationship if Kim met Moon and Trump before Xi?
As Xinhua emphasized, avoiding that outcome seems to have been a major impetus for Kim’s visit to Beijing. Kim “said the fact that he chose China as the destination of his first overseas visit showed his will to carry forward the tradition of DPRK-China friendship, and how he valued the friendship between the two countries,” Xinhua reported. Xinhua also paraphrased Kim as saying that he had come to brief Xi “in person [on] the situation [on the Korean Peninsula] out of comradeship and moral responsibility.”
According to Xinhua, this will not be a one-off event, either. Xi expressed his willingness to “keep frequent contacts” with Kim Jong-un, including through additional visits. According to North Korea’s KCNA, Xi has accepted an invitation to visit Pyongyang in the future. Xi also referenced a willingness to welcome Kim to China “again” during the banquet.
Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un’s father, visited China at least seven times: in 2000, 2001, 2004, 2006, May and August of 2010, and 2011. Notably, the first inter-Korean summit, in June 2000, was directly preceded in May 2000 by Kim Jong-il’s first trip to China since assuming power. In that sense, Kim Jong-un is simply following in his father’s footsteps with this week’s visit.
It’s no coincidence, then, that much of the content of the news summaries was focused on the past – and the importance of reclaiming the sort of close relationship China and North Korea enjoyed under previous leaders. Xi repeatedly referred to the efforts of “the elder generations of leaders” on both sides to keep the relationship close. Xi noted that “several generations of the leaders of China and the DPRK have maintained close exchanges and paid frequent calls on each other like relatives.” The unspoken corollary is that the recent absence of such exchanges is a temporary aberration, not the norm.
Keeping the special China-North Korea relationship in good health “is a strategic choice and the only right choice both sides have made based on history and reality, the international and regional structure and the general situation of China-DPRK ties,” Xi said. “This should not and will not change because of any single event at a particular time.”
Kim agreed that “The DPRK-China friendship, which was founded and nurtured by the elder generations of leaders of both countries, is unshakable,” according to Xinhua. He added that “he would like to join hands with Xi to follow the noble will of leaders of the elder generations, carry on and develop the DPRK-China friendship that remains unchanged despite winds and rains, and elevate it to a new high under new circumstances.”
Both Xi and Kim also spoke, albeit in generalized terms, about the potential for denuclearization. Xi expressed China’s long-standing support for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. Kim said that “The issue of denuclearization 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 realization of peace.” What, exactly, will qualify in Kim’s mind as meeting those requirements will be the key question ahead of the Moon-Kim summit.
Economic development – the other half of Kim’s byungjin line – received even more attention. Leaders in Beijing have long dreamed of encouraging North Korea to follow in their footsteps by opening up economically and normalizing relations with the rest of the world, without changes to the oppressive political system. Those hopes were referenced in the Xi-Kim talks, with Xi noting Kim’s “achievements in developing [the] economy and improving people’s wellbeing” and expressing China’s desire to see more progress on that front. Tellingly, one of Kim’s activities in China was visited an exhibition showcasing Chinese advancements in science and technology.
China “supports the WPK [Workers’ Party of Korea], led by Comrade Chairman [Kim], in leading the people of the DPRK to advance along the path of socialism, as well as the endeavors by comrades of the DPRK in developing [the] economy and improving people’s livelihood,” Xinhua said.
The biggest takeaway from the Kim visit is that China and North Korea are resetting their relationship – at least according to the official publicity. It is in both sides’ interests to combat the narrative of a rift in ties, especially ahead of the high-stakes diplomacy to come. Beijing does not want to appear neglected by its nominal ally, while Pyongyang does not want to seem isolated from its biggest partner. The Kim-Xi summit sends an obvious message that the two are communicating; the question moving forward will be just how close the relationship gets, especially whether China continues its commitment to UN sanctions on Pyongyang.
Meanwhile, the intensive diplomacy centered on the Korean Peninsula is set to continue. China’s highest-ranking foreign policy specialist, Yang Jiechi of the Politburo, will be visiting South Korea from March 29 to 30, where he will doubtless fill Seoul in on the Kim-Xi meeting (which Yang also participated in).