Kim Jong Un returns home after surprise Beijing visit

N. Korean leader said to have sought Xi's advice on upcoming summit with Trump

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits a plant owned by pharmaceutical firm Tong Ren Tang on Jan 9, 2019. PHOTO: XINHUA
(From left) Ri Sol-ju, wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un; Kim Jong Un, Supreme Leader of North Korea since 2011; Chinese President Xi Jinping; and Peng Liyuan, wife of President Xi Jinping. PHOTO: XINHUA

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un spent his final day in Beijing touring a pharmaceutical factory and conferring with Chinese President Xi Jinping once more over lunch before leaving for Pyongyang yesterday afternoon on a 14-hour train ride home.

He visited a plant owned by one of China's oldest pharmaceutical firms and the biggest producer of Chinese medicine in the world, Tong Ren Tang, reported South Korea's Yonhap news agency. He was said to have dined with President Xi at the Beijing Hotel, near Tiananmen Square, before leaving on his train after lunch at about 2pm.

Mr Kim arrived in Beijing on a surprise visit on Tuesday apparently to seek Mr Xi's counsel ahead of an anticipated second summit between the North Korean leader and US President Donald Trump. Progress on Mr Kim's promised denuclearisation has been slow since the two leaders met in Singapore last June and signed a joint statement.

In a New Year's address about a week ago, Mr Kim warned that he would go on a "new path" if the US did not ease sanctions. But South Korea's top envoy in Washington told reporters on Tuesday that "back-channel" communications between North Korea and the US continue in preparation of the second Trump-Kim summit, while media reports say teams from the US have been scouring suitable sites, which include Hanoi, Bangkok and Hawaii.

Mr Kim, who celebrated what is believed to have been his 35th birthday in Beijing on Tuesday, was said to have met Mr Xi for an hour of talks, and was later hosted by the Chinese leader to a dinner at the Great Hall of the People.

Analysts believe that apart from discussing the issue of denuclearisation, Mr Kim might have asked Mr Xi for help with his country's economy and strategised pushing for a peace treaty to replace the Korean War armistice signed between North Korea, China and the United States.

Neither the North Korean nor Chinese state media have reported details of Mr Kim's visit yet. At a foreign ministry briefing yesterday, spokesman Lu Kang would only confirm that Mr Kim and Mr Xi met.

"The Americans will watch this visit very closely, bearing in mind who Mr Kim brought along," said Mr Shawn Ho, associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Among those in his entourage were his right-hand man, Mr Kim Yong Chol, who was instrumental in the US and North Korea reaching a denuclearisation deal in Singapore. Also accompanying him were Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho and Defence Minister No Kwang Chol, as well as his wife, Ms Ri Sol Ju, and younger sister, Ms Kim Yo Jong.

"China wants to make sure its interests are taken into account by all sides. It doesn't want to be left out given how important the denuclearisation issue is," said Mr Ho.

On Tuesday, former US special representative for North Korea policy Joseph Yun warned against going into a second Trump-Kim summit unprepared.

"I think it would be a mistake if (before we do a second summit with Mr Kim), there's no kind of prearrangement on what the goals are, or agreement on the steps towards denuclearisation," said Mr Yun at a forum organised by the Korea Economic Institute of America.

It would mean legitimising North Korea as a nuclear-weapons state, he said. "And this virtually means we are acquiescing."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 10, 2019, with the headline Kim Jong Un returns home after surprise Beijing visit. Subscribe