Just as the second day of mid-level trade talks between US and Chinese delegations in Beijing was beginning, a surprising report crossed the wire: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had been invited to travel to China for the first time since June to meet with President Xi Jinping. News of the visit immediately provoked speculation that Beijing was trying to send a message: If the US wants peace on the Korean peninsula, China will need to be involved.
Underscoring that point, President Trump affirmed last week that Washington and Pyongyang are planning a second diplomatic summit (though Trump claimed that North Korea was showing some reluctance) to continue negotiations about denuclearizing the peninsula.
And while talks between the US and the North have hit an impasse over the US's unwillingness to lift sanctions until the North finishes surrendering his nukes - the North, on the other hand, has been pushing for their gradual removal - South Korean news agency Yonhap reported Tuesday, citing intelligence agency reports, that the North and China might discuss the prospects for "a peace treaty" with South Korea that would formally end the Korean War - one of the loftiest goals from the thaw in inter-Korean relations this year.
Kim is expected to remain in China until the weekend.
A special train, carrying Kim and his wife, Ri Sol-ju, arrived in Beijing earlier in the day on a four-day trip at the invitation of Chinese President Xi, according to the North's state media.
The National Intelligence Service (NIS) told lawmakers at a closed-door briefing that Kim may discuss ways to push for a peace treaty that could involve China ahead of his possible second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump, according to lawmakers on the intelligence committee.
In a New Year speech, Kim called for multilateral talks involving the signatories to the truce that ended the 1950-53 Korean War, including China, and replacing it with a peace treaty.
Notably, Kim made his first foreign trip as leader (he traveled by train to China) ahead of the first US-North Korea summit, which suggests that another summit may in fact be in the offing.
His trip raises speculation that a second summit between Trump and Kim might be imminent amid an impasse over North Korea's denuclearization. They held their historic first summit in June in Singapore.
The NIS said that Kim will likely seek to discuss sanctions relief and Pyongyang's denuclearization with Xi, according to lawmakers.
Kim appears to want to reaffirm China's role as the North's patron and receive a security guarantee as the two countries mark the 70th anniversary of their diplomatic ties this year.
One South Korean lawmaker said Kim's visit may have been planned to "put pressure" on the US.
The NIS also added that Kim is expected to inspect industrial facilities in the southeastern Chinese city of Tianjin.
The spy agency believes that Kim has an interest in the electricity, tourism and construction sectors.
"Kim's visit seems aimed at coordinating stances between the North and China ahead of a potential (Kim-Trump) meeting," a lawmaker told Yonhap News Agency.
"At the same time, he apparently seeks to put pressure on the U.S. by highlighting the North's ties with China."
Ironically, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lu Kang said during a Tuesday press conference that Kim's visit was not unusual and that North Korea would not become "a bargaining chip" in US trade talks. "China and the DPRK are friendly and close neighbors and it is also an important tradition for us to maintain friendly exchanges," Lu said.
The timing of Kim’s China visit is clearly linked to the planned second summit between him and President Trump. As to whether this is used as a bargaining chip by China in trade talks, I believe more Americans would think so than Chinese do. pic.twitter.com/zYPp5ZRo49— Hu Xijin 胡锡进 (@HuXijin_GT) January 8, 2019
The message is clear: If Washington wants peace on the Korean peninsula - or a completely de-nuclearized North Korea - it will need to work with Beijing.