North Korea's Kim visits China ahead of expected Trump summit

Thae Yong-ho who fled his post as North Korea's deputy ambassador to Britain in August 2016

Thae Yong-ho who fled his post as North Korea's deputy ambassador to Britain in August 2016

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has arrived in Beijing by train for an unannounced visit, at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Kim was invited by Xi and accompanied by his wife Ri Sol Ju and several top officials on his train journey across the border, the state-run Korean Central News Agency said.

His first summit with Xi was a surprise visit to Beijing last March, which was also the first time the North Korean leader left his country since he took power in late 2011 after the death of his father.

China is the isolated, nuclear-armed North's key diplomatic ally and main source of trade and aid, and the visit is likely to heighten speculation about the potential meeting with the USA president, as Kim could coordinate his strategy with Xi.

The North Korean leader, who Seoul says was born on January 8, 1984 - though the North's government hasn't officially confirmed the date - met with Xi in China three times previous year before and after holding summits with Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

"Xi also gains from a summit with Kim - and the timing could not be any better", said Harry Kazianis, director of defence studies at the Center for the National Interest, a United States think tank.

"As to in what form this is reflected, I don't think there's a need to read too much into it", Lu said, adding that United States trade talks and Kim's visit were unrelated.

"With North Korea, we have a very good dialogue", he told reporters before boarding a helicopter for the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland, where he said he would be discussing a trade deal with China.

Kim's four-day visit comes after he expressed frustration in his annual New Year's address over the lack of progress in negotiations with Washington since his unprecedented summit with Trump in Singapore seven months ago. The timing of the visit - as US and Chinese officials work to hash out a trade deal - has some wondering whether Beijing is trying its hand at playing the so-called North Korea card, to use the issue as leverage.

Until news of Kim's departure for Beijing broke, attention outside of North Korea had been focused nearly exclusively on when, or whether, he would be making his first and much-anticipated trip to Seoul.

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Also, China and Russian Federation - both the permanent members of the UN Security Council - have been putting pressure on the USA to lift UN sanctions against North Korea.

The visit coincides with what South Korean officials say is Kim's 35th birthday on Tuesday.

Kim is expected to stay at the highly secure Diaoyutai State Guest House in the capital's west, with meetings held at the Great Hall of the People, the hulking seat of the legislature that sits next to Tiananmen Square.

Negotiations were under way on the location of their next meeting, Trump said Sunday, while remaining evasive on its timing.

The North Korean leader will be in China until Thursday, making this his longest visit to date.

"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.

Washington is pressing North Korea to offer up a detailed accounting of its nuclear arsenal, while the North says it has already done enough and it's time for the U.S.to ease the harsh global sanctions that hold back the North Korean economy. However, Xi has called on the sides to "meet each other halfway", and China's foreign minister in September urged some form of sanctions relief in response to any positive outcomes from the first Kim-Trump summit.

"Their behaviour has demonstrated that as well and we appreciate that", Pompeo said.

As talks with the United States stall over ending North Korea's nuclear weapons program, a question hangs: Will he and Trump meet again? "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".

Ties between China and North Korea, which had frayed as Pyongyang stepped up its provocations through a series of missile and nuclear tests, warmed over the past year as Kim engaged with Beijing as well as Seoul and Washington.

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