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North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un Goes To China

A sedan, believed to carry North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, leaves a train station with a convoy in Beijing. Kim is making a four-day trip to China in what's likely an effort to coordinate with his only major ally ahead of a summit with President Trump that could happen early this year.
Ng Han Guan

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has traveled to China at the request of Chinese President Xi Jinping, state media of both countries announced. It's Kim's fourth visit to China in a year.

The four-day visit could be a chance for the two leaders to coordinate ahead of a second summit between Kim and President Trump, NPR's international correspondent Anthony Kuhn reports.

Kim, accompanied by his wife and top North Korean officials, was "warmly seen off by leading officials of the Party, government and armed forces organs at the railway stations," North Korea's state news agency announced. The officials, North Korea said, wished him "good successes in his visit to China and a safe trip."

What exactly those successes might be is an open question. The two countries are known for their secrecy, and neither has announced an agenda for the visit. "Washington has expressed concerns that China could use the North Korean issue for leverage in its trade disputes with the U.S.," Kuhn reports. "But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CNBC on Monday that China has so far kept the two issues separate."

Officials from the U.S. and China are meeting in Beijing this week to negotiate an end to the trade war that has led to hundreds of billions of dollars in tariffs over the past year.

"His arrival in Beijing, which coincided with Mr. Kim's birthday on Thursday, comes as Pyongyang expresses increasing frustration at the U.S. approach in stalled denuclearization talks," the Wall Street Journal reports. Kim may be trying to get a "temperature check" of China's support for sanctions against North Korea, said Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, according to the South China Morning Post. Armed with that information, Kim might know how much he can push back against the Trump administration if it refuses to compromise on sanctions, Kazianis said.

Kim visited China before and after his summit with President Trump last year, so there is speculation that a second summit is forthcoming. " U.S. and North Korean officials are believed to have met in Vietnam to discuss the location of a second summit," The Associated Press reports.

In the historic summit between the U.S. and North Korea last year, Trump touted what he said was a commitment by North Korea to denuclearize. That agreement was met with incredulity by observers, who noted that it was s hort on details. Since then, "North Korea has refused to engage in working-level talks with the U.S.," NPR has reported. "Analysts believe North Korea is betting everything on a second summit with Trump, where they will try to manipulate him into making more concessions."

In a New Year's speech, Kim warned Washington the country might be forced to take an alternative path if the U.S. "continues to break its promises and misjudges the patience of our people by unilaterally demanding certain things and pushes ahead with sanctions and pressure," according to a translation published in the New York Times.

A spokesperson for the South Korean government expressed optimism that the diplomatic discussions between the two Koreas, North Korea and China, and North Korea and the United States might build on each other. "We hope there will be a virtuous circle of these exchanges so progress in each exchange will lead to progress in others," Kim Eui-kyeom told reporters, according to the South Korean news agency Yonhap.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Matthew S. Schwartz is a reporter with NPR's news desk. Before coming to NPR, Schwartz worked as a reporter for Washington, DC, member station WAMU, where he won the national Edward R. Murrow award for feature reporting in large market radio. Previously, Schwartz worked as a technology reporter covering the intricacies of Internet regulation. In a past life, Schwartz was a Washington telecom lawyer. He got his J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center, and his B.A. from the University of Michigan ("Go Blue!").
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