Update, 8:30 p.m.: China confirms to South Korea that Kim Jong-un is visiting the country.
Original Post: The arrival of a mysterious train in Beijing on Monday sparked reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was in town for talks with the Chinese government. The Chinese government had no comment, but Bloomberg cites three sources claiming that Kim was on the train as part of a high-level North Korean delegation. South Korean media reported that he had met with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday before leaving for an unknown “third location” on Tuesday.
If Kim was really on the train, it’s significant for a few reasons. For one thing, it would be the first time he’s left North Korea—that we know of—since taking power in 2011. (A planned trip to Moscow was called off in 2015.) This is extremely unusual for any head of state, even one as unpopular internationally as Kim. Even Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir manages to travel pretty regularly despite a 2010 International Criminal Court indictment for genocide. A few years ago, Kim’s position looked precarious, with rumors of infighting and instability within the regime. Perhaps he’s now feeling a bit more confident that he can leave town for a few days without a rival seizing power. The Associated Press also notes that Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, took his first trip abroad in 2000, “six years after his father’s death. It’s now been six years since Kim Jong Il’s death.”
The mode of transportation is definitely in keeping with family tradition. Kim Jong-il, who reportedly had a deep fear of flying, made about a dozen trips abroad, almost always by train to China. Often these visits happened with the kind of secrecy and plausible deniability that surrounds this trip. There was one epic transcontinental journey to Moscow in 2001 that took several weeks.
The train photographed Monday looks a lot like the one Kim Jong-il used to travel in. According to South Korean reports, North Korea has 90 special carriages in total for Kim’s use, and his trains are equipped with flat-screen TVs and communications equipment allowing the leader to give orders and communicate with officials. During the Moscow trip, the elder Kim reportedly had lobster and wine flown in from Paris. According to North Korea’s official account, Kim Jong-il died of a heart attack while riding the train, and there’s a mock-up of the carriage at his mausoleum near Pyongyang.
Though viewed as North Korea’s most important ally, China has been extremely frustrated with Kim’s government’s nuclear provocations and erratic behavior. After years of dragging its feet, Beijing’s sanctions on trade with North Korea are finally starting to bite, and Xi and Kim reportedly view each other with contempt. It doesn’t help that Kim executed China’s main point of contact, his uncle Jang Song-thaek, in 2013. There are also rumors that the assassination of Kim’s brother Kim Jong-nam had something to do with a Chinese-backed coup plot.
Since the beginning of 2018, Kim has shown signs that after having developed what he considers a crude but effective nuclear deterrent, he’s interested in restarting limited diplomatic engagement with the rest of the world. But his outreach to South Korea’s Moon Jae-in during the recent Winter Olympics and his invitation to President Trump to hold direct talks, were read as a sign that he was looking to cut Xi out of the process. This visit to Beijing—whether it included Kim himself or just a high-level delegation—may be a sign he’s looking to shore up relations with longtime ally and trading partner China as well.
The visit also comes amid speculation about the location of the planned Trump–Kim summit, which is supposed to happen by the end of May. Beijing has been one widely discussed potential venue for the talks, and this trip is likely to raise more speculation of that possibility. Others include the heavily fortified DMZ between North and South Korea, where talks between the two sides often take place, and where Kim and Moon are due to talk in late April; or Pyongyang itself, which would raise headaches for the American side given Trump’s susceptibility to the kind of pomp and pageantry at which the North Koreans excel. There’s also been talk of Kim coming to Washington or the two leaders traveling to a neutral site in Europe—North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho made a quiet trip earlier this month to Sweden, one of the few European countries to maintain diplomatic relations with North Korea. Those scenarios, however, would require something highly unusual for a North Korean leader: getting on a plane.