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Kim Jong Un Visits China In First Known Departure From North Korea Since 2011


Some breaking news in Asia tonight - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has just made his first-known trip overseas since taking office seven years ago. He visited neighboring China. The visit was kept secret until now. It's a dramatic development coming shortly before Kim is expected to meet with the leaders of South Korea and the U.S. NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us from Beijing. Hi, Anthony.


SHAPIRO: When did Kim visit China?

KUHN: State media just released a report very shortly ago, and they said the trip was between the 25th and the 28th of March. So we don't really know if he's actually still in the country. It's possible. In past, North Korea - North Korean leaders came to China via special armored trains, and the visit was kept in secret until they left the country. So we don't know where he is right now.

SHAPIRO: We should just specify. In China, it is already the 28th of March. In the U.S., it is still the 27th of March.

KUHN: Yes.

SHAPIRO: What can you tell us about who Kim Jong Un met with while he was in China and what they might have discussed?

KUHN: The official New China News Agency released a pretty detailed report, and it said that this was a formal state visit and that Kim Jong Un and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, met with Xi Jinping and his wife, Peng Liyuan. There was official - an official reception at the Great Hall of the People. There were working talks. There was a banquet. They even took in a cultural performance together, which is sort of what Donald Trump did on his meeting to China - trip to China last November. Although, Trump seemed to have gotten something a little bit more sumptuous.

According to the Xinhua report, Xi Jinping talked about the traditional friendship of the two countries in glowing terms, calling Kim comrade, this and that. And it's really funny because it's almost as if China and North Korea had not been sort of at each other's throats over the nuclear issue. Ties were extremely tense. And now they said they were getting back on the right track. And Xi Jinping said preserving this traditional friendship between China and North Korea was a strategic choice and the only correct choice.

SHAPIRO: Do you know what the two leaders said about the nuclear issue?

KUHN: Well, Kim said that it was the consistent position of North Korea to favor denuclearization. But it's only recently that North Korea has done an about-face and said it's willing to give up its nuclear weapons and willing to enter into talks with South Korea and the U.S. And Xi Jinping also affirmed that China is in favor of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

SHAPIRO: Why hasn't Kim Jong Un made any overseas trips that we know of since taking office?

KUHN: Well, traditionally, North Korean leaders made their first visits to China. This was not possible over the seven - past seven years because of the nuclear issue. China did not welcome Kim there. And so this very quickly cleared this - cleared the only obstacle out of the way. And so Kim came directly, he said, according to the state media reports, to inform Xi Jinping in person of the important changes taking place.

SHAPIRO: Just in a few seconds, why does this visit make sense for China and for North Korea?

KUHN: Well, for Kim Jong Un, he's just eased tensions by arranging talks with Seoul and Washington. It wouldn't make sense to leave China out. For Xi Jinping, it makes sense because he's recently consolidated his power. This keeps China in the game and from being left out of the talks. And it serves as a certain kind of hedge against tensions with the U.S. over a bunch of issues, including trade, Taiwan and the South China Sea.

SHAPIRO: All right, NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Beijing, thanks so much.

KUHN: You bet, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.