China confirmed on Wednesday that Kim Jong-un met President Xi Jinping on a visit to Beijing, and said the North Korean leader would be willing to give up his nuclear weapons and hold a summit with the US.
“The issue of denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula can be resolved, if South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realisation of peace,” Mr Kim said during the four-day visit, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
Mr Xi said that China continues to push for denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and made four proposals to improve relations with North Korea, including maintaining frequent contact with Mr Kim. Mr Xi said China will continue to share friendship with North Korea as a “strategic choice” that “will not change because of any single event at a particular time”.
North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency confirmed the meeting, but did not specifically mention denuclearisation or a planned summit with President Donald Trump. It was Mr Kim's first known visit outside the country since taking power in 2011.
The visit comes amid a diplomatic flurry in Asia as leaders jockey for time with Mr Kim and seek to defuse tensions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme: he is due to have a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in April, and may meet Mr Trump before the end of May, while Japan’s prime minister has indicated he would like to talk.
The nuclear frictions also risk getting caught up in broader geopolitics. Mr Trump’s efforts to get China to cut its trade surplus with the US have caused tensions with Beijing, alongside his willingness to entertain greater interactions with Taiwan, a democratically ruled island that China considers a province.
Mr Xi has found himself preparing for a trade war with Mr Trump, even after supporting progressive rounds of United Nations sanctions against Mr Kim’s government.
“The Chinese may have thrown the olive branch to Kim to keep him on its side,” said Zhang Baohui, director of Lingnan University’s Centre for Asian Pacific Studies in Hong Kong. “I guess Beijing will, while encouraging Kim to complete a nuclear deal with the US, offer him massive economic aid.”
Mr Trump announced this month he would grant a meeting to the North Korean leader, after South Korean officials said Mr Kim was willing to discuss giving up his arsenal.
Still, North Korea’s state media has not confirmed the summit, and details on when and where it would happen are not yet worked out.
While Kim Jong-il was in power, Chinese and North Korean official sources usually waited until his return to Pyongyang to confirm he had been in China. An exception was his final trip in May 2011, when Chinese state media reported the elder Kim’s meeting with then-president Hu Jintao a day before he left the country.
Ties between China and North Korea, who fought together against South Korean and US forces during the Korean War, have been strained as China backed sanctions crimp the country’s energy imports and sources of foreign cash.
Mr Kim has also shown less willingness than his father to take China’s counsel: not long after coming to power he executed his uncle, who was a conduit for communication with Beijing.
While China opposes North Korea’s nuclear weapons, it also does not want to see Mr Kim’s regime collapse or war break out on the Korean Peninsula. Any instability could lead to a refugee crisis or potentially see US troops stationed on its border.