‘Mystery train’ apparently carrying Kim Jong-un leaves Beijing

North Korean leader’s visit comes ahead of series of summits to resolve nuclear crisis

A special train at Beijing railway station on Tuesday, rumoured to be carrying North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Photograph: Kyodo News via AP

A special train at Beijing railway station on Tuesday, rumoured to be carrying North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Photograph: Kyodo News via AP

 

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has reportedly left Beijing after his first trip outside the isolated state since he came to power in 2011, having travelled to the Chinese capital on his family’s purpose-built armoured train.

Japanese and South Korean media reported that a “high-ranking official” from North Korea was visiting China ahead of summits planned between both Koreas in April and a US-North Korea summit, probably in May.

Social media was abuzz with various sightings of vehicle convoys near the train station over the course of the afternoon (Beijing is eight hours ahead of Dublin). There were subsequent reports that the train left at 2.30pm.

South Korea’s Hankyoreh newspaper reported that Mr Kim held meetings with Chinese president Xi Jinping. The two leaders have not previously met.

There was no sign of any unusual activity outside the North Korean embassy in Beijing, except for an expanded media detachment, although there was also a large security presence outside the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, where visiting dignitaries usually stay. Tactical police from the People’s Armed Police blocked off part of the roadway there.

Temple of Heaven

There were also unconfirmed reports that the mystery visitor went to the Temple of Heaven site.

Japan’s Kyodo News reported seeing a vehicle with a North Korean embassy plate outside the Great Hall of the People in downtown Beijing.

There were no reports of any visit in Chinese media and government spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she did not know of any visits by senior North Korean officials.

According to South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper, Mr Kim has not been seen in public since he met a South Korean delegation on March 5th amid reports he is gearing up for scheduled summits with South Korea and the US.

Former North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il waving from a train while leaving Beijing, on a five-day visit to China in 2010. Photograph: KNS/AFP/Getty Images
Former North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il waving from a train while leaving Beijing, on a five-day visit to China in 2010. Photograph: KNS/AFP/Getty Images

There was speculation that the visitor was in fact Mr Kim’s sister Kim Yo-jong, who delivered a letter to South Korean president Moon Jae-in to kick-start the process of organising a summit, may be on board the train. Another possible visitor was the nominal state head Kim Yong-nam.

Kyodo earlier reported that a train with distinctive green livery and a yellow stripe had passed through the Chinese border city of Dandong on Sunday. Other media outlets said a screen had been erected to stop people seeing the train.

While China and the US have shown a united front in putting diplomatic pressure on North Korea over its nuclear programme and missile tests, Donald Trump’s plans to put tariffs on Chinese goods have complicated the picture in recent days.

China and North Korea were allies in the Korean War (1950-53), and have retained close trade and diplomatic links since, but since the start of North Korea’s nuclear programme, which Beijing has opposed, the two can no longer claim to be “as close as lips and teeth” as they were formerly.

Tensions eased

Tensions on the Korean peninsula have eased significantly this year since a flurry of diplomacy between the two Koreas saw the two bitter rivals march together under a unified flag at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

China has been largely sidelined by the developments between the two Koreas and the US, although it has repeatedly given public backing for talks between Washington and the Koreas.

A visit by Mr Kim to Beijing would make sense against a broader backdrop of China trying to make sure that it plays a key role in any significant advance towards a denuclearised peninsula.

China chaired the long-stalled six-party talks also involving both Koreas, Russia, the US and Japan, and it may be hoping to host the Trump-Kim summit in May. Beijing would make sense as a venue as Mr Kim can arrive by train, given his family’s traditional distrust of air travel.