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Kim Jong-un’s surprise trip to Beijing places China back at the fore of talks on North Korea

Kim Jong-un and his wife, Ri Sol-ju, travelled to Beijing this week, China confirmed early on Wednesday, ending intense speculation about who arrived in the Chinese capital on an armoured train used by North Korean dignitaries.

The trip marks the first known visit abroad by Mr. Kim since he became the Supreme Leader of the reclusive country in 2011. It thrust China back into the fore of global discussions around North Korea and its sudden new posture of open dialogue, a shift from years of belligerence.

In this photo released Wednesday by China's Xinhua News Agency, Chinese President Xi Jinping, second from right, and his wife Peng Liyuan, right, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, second from left, and his wife Ri Sol Ju, left, pose for a photo at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

Ju Peng/The Associated Press

In Beijing, Mr. Kim confirmed his willingness to speak with and hold a summit with the United States, Chinese state media reported.

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Read more: Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to meet in historic talks

Related: North Korea open to denuclearization, ready for talks with U.S., South says

“If South Korea and the United States respond to their efforts in good faith, creating a peaceful and stable atmosphere, and adopting periodic and simultaneous measures to achieve peace, the denuclearization of the peninsula will finally be realized,” China’s Xinhua News Agency said in a lengthy report.

In Beijing, Mr. Kim and Ms. Ri attended a theatrical performance, met with much of the upper echelon of China’s elite leadership and visited a Chinese exhibition on science and technology. The visit was shrouded in secrecy, with the appearance of the North Korean train in Beijing reviving historical accounts of former leader Kim Jong-il, who made the train into a rolling party house, stocked with fresh lobster, French wine and beautiful attendants.

Under Mr. Kim, North Korean relations with China have soured, with Pyongyang publicly badmouthing Beijing. But China on Wednesday positioned Mr. Kim’s visit as an extension of a long history of amiable ties between the two countries. State media coverage “sure makes it look like the prodigal son has returned,” remarked Bill Bishop, a prominent China newsletter-writer, on Twitter.

Under severe economic sanctions, North Korea has also sought to create divisions between those marshalled against it, including the United States, South Korea and China. Washington’s bid to isolate Pyongyang depends heavily on Beijing, and the visit between Mr. Kim and Mr. Xi further complicates the global diplomatic bid to push North Korea to lay down its nuclear arms.

The Beijing visit also marks the latest remarkable chapter in a sustained “peace offensive” that has led to plans for meetings between Mr. Kim and South Korea’s Moon Jae-in as well as U.S. President Donald Trump. Now Mr. Xi has jumped to the front of the queue.

But the visit to Beijing had the air of a very different meeting from those planned with other leaders at the invitation of Mr. Kim. It’s more likely that Mr. Xi demanded the North Korean leader come to China, said Steve Tsang, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham.

But that would suggest Mr. Kim has gone to China “under threat,” and “the most I think Xi can really get from Kim is for Kim to agree to keep Xi in the loop,” Prof. Tsang said.

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Beijing nonetheless has its own interest in ridding the neighbouring Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons.

North Korea, too, has cause to seek China’s ear. Mr. Trump’s pick of John Bolton as his national security adviser imparts a more hawkish tone to the White House.

“Kim Jong-un’s sudden visit to Beijing could be viewed as a strategic yet difficult decision, to ask for China’s help with security issues and getting sanctions eased,” Bong Youngshik, a security specialist at Yonsei University, told Yonhap TV News on Wednesday morning.

China and North Korea remain signatories of a mutual defence treaty, and there is reason for Mr. Kim to seek backup in case he needs it.

“China won’t intervene in a war of North Korea’s choosing, but might be willing to defend it if attacked. Either way, giving the impression of unity is good for both North Korea and China at the current moment,” said Christopher Green, an expert on North Korea who is an adviser for the International Crisis Group.

“It is all very well to engage the U.S. and South Korea in diplomacy, but since North Korea isn’t likely to denuclearize, those relations will always be tough, it will always need China,” said Mr. Green.

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“And the Chinese are going to be the first ones to ease off on sanctions. If Kim wants revenue streams, that is the first place he’ll get them.”

With reporting by Alexandra Li and Eunice Kim

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