Kim, Xi break the ice with wine and secret pageantry


Beijing (AFP)

For a hush-hush "unofficial visit", North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's trip to China bore all the trappings of a state reception: honour guards, bouquets, red carpets, and a banquet served on imperial yellow porcelain.

Chinese and North Korean state media on Wednesday finally broke the secret about Kim's meetings with President Xi Jinping in Beijing with a slew of images that provided some clues about the state of the complex relations between the old allies.

Kim had never met a foreign leader before, and the secrecy -- a standard security measure during past North Korean state visits to China -- allowed both countries to stage manage any potential embarrassing errors.

Kim discreetly rolled into Beijing on Monday in a slow-moving, forest-green train with tinted windows similar to those used by his father and grandfather, known to have bulletproof carriages.

Upon arrival, he was offered tissue-wrapped flowers and escorted away in a motorcade led by a fleet of motorbikes, according to photos from North Korea's official Rodong Sinmun newspaper.

No North Korean flags lined the roads, however, though China typically plasters the city in the standard of the country whose leader is visiting.

At the Great Hall of the People just off Tiananmen Square, Kim and his wife Ri Sol Ju watched a bayonet-wielding honour guard march and salute alongside Xi and first lady Peng Liyuan, dressed in a striking white coat patterned with black blotches.

Footage of talks that followed between Kim and Xi from Chinese state broadcaster CCTV cut pointedly between shots of the Chinese leader speaking and Kim studiously taking notes.

Xi referred to Kim as "Comrade Chairman" as he expounded on the two countries' "common ideals and beliefs", according to China's official Xinhua news agency.

The two leaders and their spouses also watched an art performance and attended a welcome banquet.

CCTV footage showed technicolour adornments decorating 10 round tables put out in a high-ceilinged, chandelier-topped room -- including bright fruit baskets piled with grapes and tangerines and crowned with green and orange ornamental birds.

In the middle of the largest, central table where the two couples sat was a decorative diorama of a lake park complete with pagodas, a bridge and frolicking doves and swans.

A photo from Rodong Sinmun showed the two leaders toasting, with Xi appearing to have chosen red wine and Kim white.

- 'Little brother' -

Hua Po, an independent Chinese political commentator, told AFP he felt Kim had appeared "very humble" before Xi, like "a little brother calling to pay his respects to his big brother."

Yet despite the warm welcome ceremony, "the overall atmosphere of the talks was tepid, because the two sides couldn't fully accept each other emotionally," he assessed.

Xi has backed UN sanctions to punish Kim's regime over its nuclear and missile tests, including during key political events hosted by China last year, straining relations between the longtime allies.

In recent years, Kim has done "a range of things to anger, frustrate and disrespect both Xi personally and China," explained Michael Kovrig, senior advisor for northeast Asia at the International Crisis Group.

Beijing chose not to reward Kim with the honour of an official visit because it was "not yet ready to communicate that all is forgiven," he said.

Nevertheless, the formal banquet with Peng, China's chief diplomat Wang Yi and other top officials demonstrated China's wish to shift its ties with Pyongyang towards "a normal state-to-state relationship managed by foreign ministries", in contrast with the North's desire for a more "party-to-party, blood brothers kind of relationship," he added.

- 'China's got my back' -

Authorities never confirmed Kim's presence in China while he was in the country, with a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman stating she was not aware of it even as reporters chased down the conspicuous motorcade whisking him back to the train station for departure.

On Tuesday, Kim visited an exhibition on the key achievements of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and was briefed on China's progress in "nuclear physics" and other subjects, according to the North's official KCNA news agency.

It added that Kim wrote an inscription in the visitors' book that read: "We can grasp the mightiness of China, a great neighbouring country. More excellent scientific successes will be achieved under the wise leadership of the Communist Party of China."

His China trip paves the way for planned summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump, said Kovrig, as it signalled that Beijing would not stand in the way of a potential Kim-Trump encounter.

It also places Kim in a stronger position going into talks, he said, sending the message: "Before you think about pushing me around, remember that China's still got my back."