BEIJING (BLOOMBERG, AFP, REUTERS) - China said on Wednesday (March 28) North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pledged to denuclearise the Korean peninsula during an historic meeting in Beijing with President Xi Jinping, who promised China would uphold its friendship with its isolated neighbour.
After two days of speculation, China and North Korea both confirmed on Wednesday that Kim had visited Beijing and met Xi during what China’s official Xinhua news agency called an unofficial visit from Sunday to Wednesday.
The trip was Kim’s first known journey abroad since he assumed power in 2011 and is believed by analysts to serve as preparation for upcoming summits with South Korea and the United States.
Mr Kim reportedly told Mr Xi he was committed to denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
He held talks with Mr Xi at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
Mr Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan held a welcoming banquet for Mr Kim and his wife Ri Sol Ju, and they watched an art performance together, Xinhua said.
Kim was accompanied by his wife, a break with his predecessors' practice of going on foreign trips without their spouses.
Mr Kim also visited an exhibition showcasing the innovation achievements of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Xinhua said he showed his admiration for China’s accomplishments in the development and innovation of science and technology, and wrote an inscription to mark the visit.
The surprise visit comes amid a diplomatic flurry in Asia as leaders jockey for face time with Mr Kim and seek to defuse tensions over North Korea's nuclear weapons programme.
He is due to have a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae In in late April, and potentially meet US President Donald Trump before the end of May, while Japan's prime minister has indicated he'd like to meet Mr Kim too.
Kim and Xi also met at the Diaoyutai State Guest House, where North Korea founder Kim Il Sung planted a tree in 1959 that still stands.
Kim’s meeting with Xi strengthens North Korea’s negotiating position by aligning the two nations ahead of Trump and Kim’s planned meeting, said Wang Peng, a North Korea expert at the Charhar Institute in Beijing.
“North Korea is seeking assurances,” he said.
“They want to quickly mend ties with China so that they have more leeway with the Unites States and they have more confidence in a good outcome."
Mr Xi also accepted an invitation from Kim to visit Pyongyang, the North’s state media said on Wednesday.
On behalf of the North’s ruling party and government, Mr Kim invited Mr Xi “to make an official visit to the DPRK at a convenient time and the invitation was accepted with pleasure”, KCNA reported, referring to the country’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Russia on Wednesday welcomed the Xi-Kim meeting as an important step to strengthen positive changes on the Korean peninsula.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said Russia aimed to continue close cooperation with China to resolve tensions on the peninsula by“purely diplomatic means”.
The White House said China briefed President Trump on Mr Kim’s visit and the communication included a personal message from Mr Xi to Mr Trump, the White House said in a statement.
“The United States remains in close contact with our allies South Korea and Japan. We see this development as further evidence that our campaign of maximum pressure is creating the appropriate atmosphere for dialogue with North Korea,” the statement said.
Xinhua said Mr Xi and Mr Kim exchanged views on the situation of the world and the Korean Peninsula.
Mr Xi said that positive changes had taken place on the Korean Peninsula since this year, and China appreciates the important efforts made by North Korea.
Mr Xi said that China sticks to the goal of denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, safeguarding peace and stability and solving problems through dialogue and consultation and that China intended to work with all parties towards a thaw on the peninsula.
Mr Kim said that the situation on the Korean Peninsula was starting to get better and that North Korea had taken the initiative to ease tensions and put forward proposals for peace talks.
"It is our consistent stand to be committed to denuclearisation on the peninsula, in accordance with the will of late President Kim Il Sung and late General Secretary Kim Jong Il," Mr Kim said.
He said North Korea was determined to transform inter-Korean ties into a relationship of reconciliation and cooperation and hold summit between the heads of the two sides, Xinhua reported him as saying.
The North was willing to have dialogue with the United States and hold a summit of the two countries, he said.
"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," said Mr Kim.
The North also hoped to enhance strategic communication with China during the process, Mr Kim added.
“There is no question that my first foreign visit is to the Chinese capital,” KCNA quoted Mr Kim saying at a banquet in Beijing.
“This is my solemn duty as someone who should value and continue the DPRK-PRC relations through generations,” he added using the countries’ official acronyms.
President Xi said he had candid and friendly talks with Mr Kim, reported Xinhua.
“We agreed that carrying forward the traditional friendship between China and the DPRK accords with the common interests of both sides, and is the common strategic choice of both sides.”
“No matter how the international and regional situation changes, we will both firmly grasp the global development trend and the overall situation of the China-DPRK relationship, strengthen our high-level exchanges, deepen our strategic communication, expand our exchanges and cooperation, and benefit the people of both countries and the people of all countries,” said the Chinese leader.
Putting the visit into perspective, Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center in Beijing and the former White House representative to North Korea denuclearisation talks from 2007-2009, said: “China is North Korea’s lifeline, so the notion, from a Chinese perspective, that Kim Jong Un couldn’t have these other two meetings before meeting with Xi Jinping, I think the Chinese just thought that is not going to happen.”
Former leader Kim Jong Il met then-president Jiang Zemin in China in 2000 before a summit between the two Koreas in June that year.
That visit was seen at the time as reaffirmation of close ties with Beijing. The secrecy around the visit was not unusual.
The later visits of Kim Jong Il to China were only announced by both countries once he had left the country.
Zhang Baohui, director of Lingnan University’s Centre for Asian Pacific Studies in Hong Kong, said China might have “thrown the olive branch to Kim to keep him on its side”.
"I guess Beijing will, while encouraging Kim to complete a nuclear deal with the US, offer him massive economic aid," he added.
Mr Trump announced this month he'd grant an unprecedented meeting to the North Korean leader, after South Korean officials said Mr Kim was willing to discuss giving up his arsenal. Still, North Korea's state media haven't confirmed the summit, and details on when and where it would happen are not yet worked out.
"It’s extremely difficult for the U.S. to map out a feasible denuclearisation process that meets the North Korean preconditions without China’s support and involvement,” said Cheng Xiaohe, a North Korea expert at Renmin University in Beijing.
While China opposes North Korea's nuclear weapons, it also doesn't want to see Mr Kim's regime collapse or war break out on the Korean Peninsula. Any instability could lead to a refugee crisis or potentially US troops on its border.
In past talks, North Korea had said it could consider giving up its arsenal if the United States removes its troops from South Korea and withdraws its so-called “nuclear umbrella” of deterrence from South Korea and Japan, a stance Washington has found unacceptable.
“Those of us who have negotiated with the North Koreans know what they mean (by denuclearisation),” former senior US diplomat Evans Revere said.
“About the only thing that the North Korean leader might need to ‘sell’ to his people – and particularly to the military - is the idea of a ‘freeze’ on some elements of his programme.”
The next months will open Pandora's box in North East Asia, writes Mr Ankit Panda, adjunct senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, in a piece for BBC News.
"Kim has been quoted by both South Korean and Chinese officials as being open to discussing denuclearisation, but, as always, this means something quite different for North Korea than it does for Washington. Pyongyang imagines a denuclearised "peninsula" as one without a US nuclear guarantee for South Korea," he adds.