BEIJING — It was billed as a four-day trip, but North Korean leader Kim Jong Un spent barely 27 hours in Beijing.
Kim attended a banquet with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Great Hall of the People, a plush ceremonial building on one side of Tiananmen Square, on Tuesday night — his 35th birthday. During the dinner, Kim and Xi, together with their wives, enjoyed a “grand variety show” to mark 70th anniversary of their countries’ diplomatic relations, according to South Korean media reports.
On Wednesday morning, Kim visited a traditional Chinese pharmaceutical company inside the Yizhuang Science and Technology Park in the southeast suburbs of Beijing.
The 300-year-old Tong Ren Tang Chinese Medicine Co. is one of China’s most famous pharmaceutical companies, producing medicines using bee products including honey, pollen and wax.
It stood in stark contrast to the more high-tech sites — China’s Silicon Valley, a science lab and a transit control center — that Kim toured last year.
Then it was time to see Xi again. They had lunch at the state-run Beijing Hotel, a place where Xi’s predecessor Mao Zedong once entertained Kim’s grandfather. Kim Il Sung, the founding leader of North Korea, loved the Chinese food at the hotel so much that he sent a stream of chefs to study there, according to the book “Legend of Beijing Hotel.”
His private train pulled out of Beijing shortly after 2 p.m.
It turned out that North Korea’s announcement of a four-day visit included travel time. The train between the Beijing and Pyongyang takes more than 20 hours.
The Chinese government, other than confirming the visit was happening, has not released any information about the meetings. But Kim’s itinerary could be pieced together through motorcades and security cordons and traffic jams.
The North Korean leader’s relatively light schedule might be a reflection of the fact that these visits have become somewhat common. The two didn’t meet once during the first five years they were both in power. Now Kim has crossed the border into China four times in the past 10 months.
But more likely, it is a reflection of a delicate diplomatic balancing act for the young leader as he prepares for his second summit with President Trump.
Kim and Trump are expected to announce the details soon, amid complaints from both sides that the other is not living up to the agreement they reached in Singapore in June. The United States is unhappy about the lack of progress toward denuclearization, while the North Korean regime wants immediate relief from crippling sanctions imposed in 2017.
Add to that seven decades of enmity between North Korea and the United States, and five years of disdain between Kim and Xi. Plus, there’s the trade war between China and the United States.
Some analysts say that Kim is now trying to pit Trump and Xi against each other. But others say there are limits.
“Kim still wants the sanctions lifted. He may want to encourage Xi to get on the phone and lean on Trump,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. But trying to play them off each other will leave Kim the loser, she said.
“The Chinese have always looked at North Korea through the lens of their competition with the United States, so they want to make sure their interests are protected,” she said.
China has repeatedly said the visit was about strengthening cooperation and exchanges.
“There is no doubt that Chairman Kim Jong Un will have an in-depth exchange of views with the Chinese leadership on deepening relations between the two parties and two states as well as on international and regional issues of mutual interest,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said as the visit began.
Some analysts say that North Korea and China could be strengthening their relationship to try to put pressure on the United States for their own reasons: North Korea to get early sanctions relief, and China to help resolve the trade war. But others point out that the mistrust between Xi and Kim runs deep.
Kim has appeared to resent North Korea’s reliance on its much bigger neighbor, and spent his first years trying to lessen his regime’s economic dependence on China. About 90 percent of North Korean trade goes to or through China, and China is the only country with both the interest and the money to prop up the North Korean economy.
For the first five years that Kim and Xi held office concurrently, Kim did not make the traditional socialist pilgrimage to Beijing, apparently trying to keep the Chinese leadership at arm’s length. This came despite Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao backing Kim’s succession. Xi seemed to sour on his muchyounger counterpart after Kim’s early brazen actions.
Kim had his uncle, a man responsible for North Korea’s economic relations with China, executed at the end of 2013. Then he launched increasingly advanced missiles, including on days when Xi was holding high-profile international forums. Now the two are trying to pretend that those five years didn’t happen, said Adam Cathcart, an expert on Chinese-North Korean relations at the University of Leeds.
“The dissonance between that experience and Xi Jinping having to make believe that Kim Jong Un is a prodigal son, who will henceforth and forever operate without harming China’s national interest or Xi’s political survival, is of course apparent,” he said.
North Korea remains wary about being too dependent on China, while China wants stability, Glaser said.
Both sides have their reasons for engaging now, but that doesn’t mean either will forget their recent history. Case in point: Xi had said he would make the return visit to Pyongyang, hinting that it would be by the end of last year.
“What do the North Koreans have to do before they get a Xi Jinping visit?” Glaser asked.
Lyric Li and Yuan Wang contributed reporting.