An as-yet unidentified official from North Korea reportedly crossed the border into China by train on Sunday on a mission to “improve ties with Beijing which have been frayed over North Korea’s nuclear programs,” as South Korea’s Yonhap News puts it.
Rumors abound that the official is none other than North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.
Bloomberg Politics has sources that say the visitor to Beijing was indeed Kim, making his first known trip outside the borders of his own country since he assumed power in 2011. Footage of the arriving train from North Korea appeared similar to the train Kim’s father Kim Jong-il used for a trip to China shortly before he died.
Bloomberg’s analysts suggest the unusually long delay between the new North Korean dictator taking power and visiting China for the first time, if that is indeed what the train chugging into Beijing represents, is a sign of how strained relations between Beijing and Pyongyang has become. The more optimistic observers hope that Kim is making the trip now because China is pressuring him to make a denuclearization deal during his potential upcoming summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump.
Business Insider cites other speculation that China could be eager to have Kim’s ear for a bit before he makes deals with the U.S. and South Korea, potentially freezing China out of the denuclearization process, and that Kim could be seeking ironclad security guarantees from China before he considers negotiating his nuclear missile program away.
Bloomberg quotes the State Department’s cheeky response when asked if it was given advance knowledge of any Kim visit to China, “We’d refer you to the Chinese.”
Reuters quotes a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman saying she was unaware of any such state visit and notes the North Korean embassy in Beijing does not appear to be answering its phone at the moment.
Residents of the border town of Dandong reported elevated security around the train station and local rumors that Kim Jong-un was passing through. Observers in Beijing reported road and office closings consistent with a VIP visit to the Great Hall of the People, including police clearing tourists from Tiananmen Square. Warnings of significant rail service delays for the Beijing region were issued on Monday. Reuters reports spotted a large motorcade traveling from the Great Hall of the People to the Diaoyutai State Guest House on Monday evening.
As further grist for the rumor mill, Reuters notes that Kim Jong-il’s visits to China were only officially confirmed after he left the country and that he was known to prefer traveling by rail instead of air for security reasons.