There are very few moments in our lives when we have a chance to witness such an extraordinary political performance as unrolled a few days ago in Beijing. Unexpectedly, the 34-year-old North Korean dictator decided to pay a visit to his political tutor Xi Jinping, thirty years his senior and the strongman of China. Xi, who recently forced his political subordinates to grant him a mandate that allows him to reign in China until the end of his days, now has similar powers as pre-revolutionary emperors, notably the first Communist tsar, Mao Zedong.
Only a month after Xi Jinping gained his imperial powers, the young Kim Jong Un put his own imperial outfit on, summoned his wife, and boarded the family’s armored train. Heading to the capital of the Middle Kingdom, it was like the prodigal son’s return home, a harmony within the political universe that we all thought was long gone. Instead, it came and hit with a powerful blow, not at all as nostalgic as a Hollywood remake, but a strong statement that the old is the future of the world order.
In short, the visit, as I see it, marks the definite passage of global power from the US to China; March 27, 2018, will be marked in the historical record as the date when China took over control of Far East Asia. The event was somehow similar to the ceremony on July 1, 1997, when the British colony of Hong Kong was handed over to China. This contemporary event ran a slightly different course, however: there were no fireworks, no signing of a treaty; the ceremony took place indoors and the surrendering state–the U.S.–was not even invited to the table.
But here is how it happened. The ancient train, built like the Chinese models from the early 50s, arrived on March 26 “puffing” into the old Beijing train station. The arrival of this museum piece train in Beijing ignited Japanese tv reports, followed shortly by Bloomberg, that Kim Jong Un might be secretly visiting Beijing. As China long ago replaced such trains with modern, high-speed trains, the only conclusion that could be made was that the master game of Xi Jinping was beginning to reveal itself before our eyes. This was diplomacy at its imperial height. To me, this was the first time that Xi Jinping’s shrewdness became tangible, making me aware of the capacity of the mind behind that sleepy, poker-playing face of his.
For a day and a half, none of the foreign correspondents in Beijing could confirm who was on the mysterious train, parked and heavily guarded at the old Beijing railway station, now mostly used only for purposes of protocol. An educated guess began to circulate that the unmarked train was from North Korea, rather than being some museum piece. If confirmed that the train had indeed arrived from Pyongyang, that it was the same train that three generations of Kim’s had used, it was evident that the young Kim was in Beijing. Nobody but him could ride that train.
My sense was, judging by the images, that the train was Kim’s and therefore that he was in Beijing. What was unclear to me was, what was he doing there? What kind of visit was this, a blitz? An emergency? There has been no high-level communication between the two countries recently. Has Kim come to Beijing just for the shopping? We had to wait until the 28th when that slow, green colored train reached Pyongyang once again. Only then did the Chinese state news agency, Xinhua, make the surprise visit official by confirming that Kim Jong Un was visiting Beijing on the invitation of President Xi Jinping. Xinhua wrote that the visit lasted from March 25 to 28th.
To be exact, as I reconstructed it from the available footage, Kim’s train entered China, via Dandong, at around 10:40 p.m. on March 25. The train stopped at the heavily guarded station for about 40 minutes, the time needed for the protocol greetings of the Xi Jinping envoys. Kim’s train then continued its travel into the night and arrived in heavily polluted Beijing sometime before 1 p.m. on March 26 (the smog was so bad that the exact time on the watchtower as the motorcade departed from the station to the Diaoyutai, the state guest house where Kim sojourned, are unreadable). However, with enough interest and patience to watch the North Korean Central Television-edited footage, it is evident that Kim spent only a day and a half in Beijing and the four-day-visit refers to the duration of time Kim was absent from Pyongyang.
According to an old North Korean practice, the Kims report on their foreign visits only after concluding. Judging from this first visit abroad, Kim Jong Un isn’t inclined to exempt this rule, considering travel by train is safer than by plane, and that the secrecy of Kim’s movements required a tight regulation of security. In a country of constant terror, even the most powerful men fear that announcing their own absence from the capital may create an opportunity for enemies to overthrow them. This the reason why the preparations for travel to Beijing must have started months ago on both sides, but above all on China’s side, because it was Xi who extended the invitation.
Long months of preparation means that Kim Jong Un intended to visit Beijing before he started his charm offensive, sending his sister Kim Yo Jong as the head of the North Korean delegation to the winter Olympics at PyeongChang. A later indication of his turn of a cheek, North and South Korea continued with talks and, after his visit in Pyongyang, the South Korean envoy Chung Eui-Yong made a blitz appearance in Washington to convey to Donald Trump an invitation to meet with Kim Jong Un. During all these Pyongyang political initiatives, Beijing kept silent, while the South Koreans, perhaps unaware of the dramatic turn in Beijing’s long game, were pushing the North to do more. On the other hand, Donald Trump, unaware of anything but himself, was glowing in the chance to stand center in the world’s spotlight, shaking hands with the little rocket man.
But is it really possible that Xi Jinping is the conductor of this plot? Considering the timing of the visit, the hypothesis is credible and more plausible than interpretations that imagine Kim Jong Un in the director’s chair. According to this hypothesis, Kim Jong Undecided on the 180 degrees turns because he was afraid that the U.S. might strike for real; that he needs more time to fix his domestic problems and get some relief for his country’s stricken economic condition, accelerated brutally by sanctions related to nuclear proliferation. Since this, at the time, was the only factual hypothesis, we took it for granted, but now, with the surprise visit behind us, we have to reset our thinking.
Look at the images of the Beijing show and ceremonies. They are boring, old, not at all exciting or sexy. They show an obsolete world, a different kind from the one we live in. It is not the western world. It is a world that includes all the elements both the Chinese and Koreans read and understand fluently. The red carpet reception, military salute, party talks, lavish receptions, toasts with many pledges in codes only experts can decipher; visit of an exhibition; advanced technology offered for a sale; the intimate meeting between the families of two new strategic partners. All this in one day and a half, without the world knowing what was happening inside the palaces of Chinese power. The secret, with no crowds cheering, but still a performance of the theatre, a scripted documentary that only became real after it was shown to a North Korean audience. If there were no signatures or treaties it is because words are enough between friends. “This is a strategic choice and the only right choice both sides have made based on history and reality, the international and regional structure and the general situation of China-DPRK ties. This should not and will not change because of any single event at a particular time,” Xi said.
What is critical to consider here is that Xi is saying the strategic relationship will not change because of any single event at any particular time, and Kim confirmed that more frequent meetings will follow. It seems, therefore, that it may be a meeting between Kim and Trump, if it ever happens, that will never shift the strategic game board. In this sense, Kim Jong Un responded, that his current visit prioritizes meeting Chinese comrades, enhancing strategic communication, and deepening a traditional friendship in hopes for opportunities to meet with Comrade General Secretary Xi Jinping often, and keep close contact. Such communication between the two, such as sending special envoys and personal letters to each other, will promote to a new level the high-level meetings, relations, and power-sharing between the men and their countries.
This must be the focus of our future. As much as this was a brilliant move from the side of Xi Jinping, I am not sure how long this virtual reality between Beijing and Pyongyang can last. And the moves we watched and assessed, posterior, taking place over the surprise visit are not necessarily genial but are more simply a historic opportunity an ignorant American president offered his Chinese competitor, on a silver platter.