The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, has made a second surprise visit to China to meet its president, Xi Jinping, amid a flurry of diplomacy as Kim prepares for a summit with Donald Trump.
Meanwhile, America's top diplomat Mike Pompeo arrived in Pyongyang on Wednesday, landing at the centre of a whirlwind of diplomacy ahead of a planned US-North Korea summit.
Pompeo was dispatched on an unannounced visit — his second in weeks, but first as secretary of state — to lay the groundwork for Donald Trump's unprecedented meeting with Kim Jong-un.
His visit comes as rumours fly over three US citizens being held in the North, with suggestions they may have been moved in preparation for a release.
The rapid detente on the Korean peninsula triggered by the Winter Olympics is a marked contrast from last year, when Kim and Trump traded personal insults and threats of war over the North's nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.
"We think relationships are building with North Korea," Trump said in a televised address from the White House. "We will see how it all works out. Maybe it won't. But it can be a great thing for North Korea, South Korea and the entire world." But the details of a deal appear to be far from clear.
At a historic meeting inside the Demilitarised Zone last month, Kim and South Korean president Moon Jae-in reaffirmed their commitment to a "common goal" of "complete denuclearisation" of the Korean peninsula.
Hours before Pompeo landed, Trump yanked the US from a nuclear deal with Iran, complicating the prospects of persuading Pyongyang to surrender its atomic arsenal.
On Tuesday, Kim flew to the Chinese port city of Dalian and held talks “in a cordial and friendly atmosphere” with Xi over two days before returning to Pyongyang on Tuesday, China’s state news agency Xinhua said in announcing the trip. It is the second meeting between the two leaders in about 40 days, and was kept secret until Kim had left China.
Shortly after the summit was reported, Trump said on Twitter he would speak to Xi by phone about North Korea, where he said “relationships and trust are building”.
Kim and Xi discussed relations between their two countries as well as “major issues of common concern”, and Kim restated Pyongyang’s desire to relinquish its nuclear arsenal.
“It has been the DPRK’s consistent and clear stand to achieve denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula,” Kim said, using the acronym for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, according to paraphrased remarks reported by Xinhua.
“As long as relevant parties abolish their hostile policies and remove security threats against the DPRK, there is no need for the DPRK to be a nuclear state and denuclearisation can be realised.”
It was not immediately clear what security threats Kim was referring to, but experts have said North Korea may push for the removal of some or all of the 28,000 US soldiers currently stationed in South Korea. The meeting comes as Kim prepares to meet Trump, who has said the date and location of the summit is fixed but has yet to make details public.
“I hope to build mutual trust with the US through dialogue,” Kim was quoted as saying. He said he hoped to take “phased and synchronous measures” in order to “eventually achieve” a formal peace treaty with Seoul – the two neighbours are still technically in a state of war – and a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.
The statement seemed to be at odds with demands from the US, which has called on North Korea to immediately disarm.
Although Kim’s meeting was reported in North Korean media, his remarks on denuclearisation were noticeably absent. Kim travelled to Dalian by plane, in a public and telling break with his father’s traditional means of travel – he insisted on only using an armoured train due to a fear of flying.
China has been angling to retain its influence over its ally amid the recent rapprochement between North and South Korea, and Kim’s desire to directly engage with the US. Kim and Xi have had a frosty relationship since Kim came to power in 2011, only meeting for the first time in late March. That was Kim’s first official trip outside North Korea when he travelled to Beijing in a bullet-proof train.
“China is willing to continue to work with all relevant parties and play an active role in comprehensively advancing the process of peaceful resolution of the peninsula issue through dialogue, and realising long-term peace and stability in the region,” Xi said.
The meeting between the two men comes as the Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, is set to travel to Tokyo for meetings with the Japanese prime minister, Shinzō Abe, and the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in.
Moon hosted Kim during a historic one-day summit in April, marking the first time a leader from North Korea had set foot in the South since the end of the 1950-53 Korean war. The two leaders agreed to work towards the goal of “complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula” in a joint statement that capped the cordial meeting.
As the representative of North Korea’s most important economic and trade partner, Liu had rare insight into the isolated regime at a time when a previous international deal aimed at restraining that country’s nuclear ambitions collapsed. Pyongyang tested its first nuclear bomb in 2006, and is now thought to have dozens of warheads. The testing of ballistic missiles last year that North Korea said were capable of reaching the U.S. brought the issue to a head.
“When it comes to North Korea, based on my experience, there will always be two steps forward and one step back. Sometimes one step forward, two steps back,” said Liu, asked if the regime could be frustrating to deal with.
Still, while a recent summit between Kim and South Korea President Moon Jae-In wasn’t unique (two under previous leaders had limited long-term success) this time is different, Liu said, because the U.S. is engaged at a much higher level. In Liu’s day, U.S. contact with North Korea was at the level of assistant secretary of state or ambassador -- Trump would be the first U.S. president to meet a North Korean leader since the end of the Korean war in the 1950s.
“We will try to do our best to make sure people are talking, rather than resort to what we call a risk cycle of retaliation; we are looking for a virtuous cycle,” said Liu.
That kind of lengthy diplomatic crawl may not satisfy Trump. He has attacked previous U.S. administrations’ efforts to negotiate incremental deals with North Korea as flawed -- and none of those were as tough or intrusive as the deal with Iran. His new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said he doesn’t think North Korea is overtly concerned about whether the U.S. withdraws from it.
“Some people say there are so many unpredictable leaders in the world today,” Liu said. “So we have to be careful with predictions.”