Kim Jong-un surprised the world—once again—by making an unannounced trip to China earlier this week, and observers in the United States still haven’t come to any agreement on what it means. The North Korean leader traveled to Beijing by bulletproof train to meet with Chinese president Xi Jinping ahead of a planned meeting later this spring between Kim and American president Donald Trump.
Georgetown University professor and American Enterprise Institute scholar Oriana Skylar Mastro told Vox it was “Kim’s desperation”—as well as both leaders’ fears of war—that precipitated the China meeting. “Kim probably realized that if he was going to meet directly with the United States, he needed Beijing’s support in that meeting to gain some sort of leverage in those discussions,” she said. “What I’m guessing happened in the meeting is that Xi chastised Kim for his nuclear and missile tests and made him promise not to do them again.”
CNN had a very different take, as its story’s headline suggests: “China throws Trump a curveball ahead of his meeting with Kim.” “This didn’t look to me like a browbeating summit, that is not the dynamic at all,” Mike Chinoy, a fellow at the U.S.-China Institute at the University of Southern California, told the network. Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, agreed that the meeting put Kim and Xi on a friendlier footing, with past differences now behind them. “It means the Trump team is going to be navigating really narrow straits here. It’s hard to overstate how dramatic this development is,” Mount declared.
None of these experts knows just what was said behind closed doors, of course. Neither leader would reveal such information, and the state-controlled media of both countries wouldn’t be helpful either. Though the report from North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency of the meeting of the two leaders and their wives recalls Trump’s focus on a delicious piece of chocolate cake at his own meeting with Xi: “The luncheon hall where Kim Jong Un and Ri Sol Ju sat face to face with Xi Jinping and Peng Liyuan was overflowing with a harmonious and intimate atmosphere from its beginning to the end.” As Trump told reporters on Thursday, “We’re moving along very nicely with North Korea. We’ll see what happens. Certainly the rhetoric has calmed down just a little bit.” It’s unclear how self-aware that comment was.
But maybe Kim’s main motive was something simpler than most pundits are presenting. The Beijing train trip was the first occasion on which Kim has left North Korea since he became its dictator in 2011, and his meeting with Xi was his first-ever with another head of state. Kim and Xi may have a complicated relationship, but Kim can expect he won’t get as warm a reception from the next two leaders he’s slated to see—South Korean president Moon Jae-in in April and American president Donald Trump in May. Perhaps Kim just wanted a little practice in the sort of diplomacy most world leaders perform almost as soon as they enter office.