BEIJING: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is visiting China at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping, only days after warning he may take an alternative path if the United States does not ease sanctions and pressure on his country.
The visit, confirmed by North Korean and Chinese state media, will likely lead to Kim's fourth summit with Xi in the past year and comes amid plans for a second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump aimed at denuclearising the Korean peninsula.
Kim held three summits last year with Xi, his most important ally, before and after summits with Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. "Kim is eager to remind the Trump administration that he does have diplomatic and economic options besides what Washington and Seoul can offer," Harry J. Kazianis, Director of Defence Studies at U.S.-based Centre for the National Interest said in an e-mailed statement.
"In fact, during his New Year's Day speech, Kim's 'new way' that he referred to may well have been a veiled threat to move closer to Beijing. That should make America quite concerned."
Kim left for China on a private train on Monday afternoon accompanied by his wife, Ri Sol Ju, and senior North Korean officials, including Kim Yong Chol, a key negotiator in talks with the United States, and foreign minister Ri Yong Ho, North Korea's state-run KCNA news agency said.
China's official Xinhua news agency confirmed that Kim was visiting from Monday to Thursday at Xi's invitation.
A green train with a yellow stripe similar to one Kim took to Beijing last year arrived at a station in the Chinese capital on Tuesday morning amid tight security, though it was not clear if Kim and his party were on board. A motorcade with heavy security later drove through central Beijing.
The visit coincided with what South Korean officials say is Kim's 35th birthday on Tuesday.
Kim's visit to North Korea's most important economic and diplomatic ally, which was first reported by South Korean media, follows reports of advanced negotiations for a second summit between Washington and Pyongyang aimed at resolving the standoff over North Korea's nuclear programme.
Kim said in his New Year speech he was ready to meet Trump any time to achieve their common goal of denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. But he warned that he may seek an alternative path if U.S. sanctions and pressure against the country continued.
In an interview with CNBC on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo praised China's support for resolving the North Korean crisis and said he did not think the U.S. trade dispute with China would affect this.
Kim's visit comes as a U.S. delegation opened a second day of talks with Chinese counterparts in Beijing aimed at ending the trade war between the world's two largest economies.
"The Chinese have been very clear to us that these are separate issues," Pompeo said.
"Their behaviour has demonstrated that as well and we appreciate that. China has actually been a good partner in our efforts to reduce the risk to the world from North Korea's nuclear capability; I expect they will continue to do so."
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang, asked during a daily briefing whether there was a connection between Kim's visit and the possibility of another meeting between Kim and Trump, said China believed contact between the United States and North Korea was important.
"China has always supported both sides to continue to hold talks and to reach a positive outcome," Lu said.
When asked if Kim's delegation might have contact with the U.S. trade delegation in Beijing, Lu said the two groups were not on the same level.
Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University in Beijing, said Kim's trip would have no direct influence on the progress of trade talks.
"From the other prospective, this is something that can indirectly be used to show the United States that China is not playing without any cards in hand," Shi said.
He added that Kim would "certainly call on Xi Jinping to give North Korea more economic assistance".
South Korea's presidential Blue House spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom said separately on Thursday that South Korea hoped Kim's visit would contribute to efforts to secure permanent peace on the peninsula.
"We especially hope that the exchange between China and North Korea this time will be a stepping stone for the second North Korea-U.S. summit," Kim said.
While no details were released about an agenda in China, the North Korean leader has been seeking relief from sanctions, a peace declaration to formally end the 1950-1953 Korean War and more investment.
Ties between China and North Korea, which had frayed as Pyongyang stepped up its missile and nuclear tests up to late 2017, warmed over the past year as Kim engaged with China, South Korea and the United States.
(Reporting by Se Young Lee, Christian Shepherd, and Michael Martina in BEIJING, Andrew Galbraith in SHANGHAI, and Joyce Lee and Josh Smith in SEOUL; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel)