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(3rd LD) N. Korean leader heads back home after China trip

All Headlines 16:17 January 09, 2019

(ATTN: CHANGES headline; UPDATES throughout with new info; ADDS photo; COMBINES with story slugged 'NK leader-departure')

BEIJING, Jan. 9 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-un headed back home Wednesday after a surprise visit to Beijing for talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping ahead of a possible summit with U.S. President Donald Trump.

Kim's special train departed from the Beijing railway station at 2:08 p.m. local time with Kim and his entourage on board. Senior Chinese officials saw him off at the station. The train is expected to cross back into North Korea early Thursday morning.

Kim arrived in Beijing on Tuesday and held summit talks with Xi hours later. Details of their hourlong meeting were not disclosed. After the talks, Xi hosted a welcome reception for Kim. Tuesday was Kim's 35th birthday.

A special train carrying North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his entourage leaves Beijing for Pyongyang on Jan. 9, 2019. Kim headed back home after wrapping up a trip to China during which he met Chinese President Xi Jinping and visited industrial facilities. (Yonhap)

Earlier Wednesday, Kim visited a pharmaceutical factory located in the economic-technological development zone in the Chinese capital. Sources said that he spent around 20-30 minutes touring the plant operated by Tong Ren Tang, a drug-making conglomerate known for its history of more than 300 years.

Kim reportedly had lunch with Xi before heading to the station.

He was accompanied on the trip by his wife, Ri Sol-ju, and other officials, including Kim Yong-chol, a key nuclear negotiator with the U.S., and Ri Yong-ho and No Kwang-chol, the country's foreign and defense ministers, respectively. His younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, was also among the entourage.

Kim's trip to China, the fourth of its kind since taking office in late 2011, came amid speculation that a second summit between the North's leader and U.S. President Donald Trump is imminent.

In his New Year's Day speech, Kim warned that he could go a new way if the United States clings to pressure and sanctions on the North's regime. He kept the door open for talks with the U.S., however, saying he is willing to meet Trump at any time.

He also called for multilateral talks involving the signatories to the truce that ended the 1950-53 Korean War, including China, on replacing it with a peace treaty. The issue could have been discussed during his trip to China this week, observers said.

Trump earlier said that the U.S. and North Korea are in talks over where to hold their second summit and a decision on the venue will be announced in the "not-too-distant future."

Last year, Kim traveled to China and met with Xi three times before and after he held his first-ever summit with Trump in Singapore in June.

In the Singapore summit, Kim agreed to work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in exchange for security guarantees.

Progress, however, has been slow for months as the North has been calling for sanctions relief, while Washington says such concessions will not be granted until the North completely gives up its nuclear weapons.

Escorted by Chinese police, a vehicle carrying North Korean leader Kim Jong-un passes through central Beijing on Jan. 9, 2019. Kim visited an economic-technological development zone in the Chinese capital. (Yonhap)

Experts think Kim might have gone to China to discuss strategies with Pyongyang's closest ally ahead of a possible summit with Trump. They added that it also appears aimed at strengthening the North's negotiating leverage by demonstrating its strong ties with Beijing.

The China trip came as the two allies mark the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties this year. Kim's arrival in Beijing also coincided with what is believed to be his 35th birthday, which experts say demonstrates to the world how strong their relations are.

Experts say that Kim's trip to China could be followed by a visit of Seoul or a meeting with U.S. President Trump in the near future.

Kim agreed to travel to Seoul for the first time "at an early date" during his summit meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in September. In a personal letter to Moon last month, he expressed disappointment about not making a trip to Seoul by the year's end and hoped to fulfill his promise soon.

kokobj@yna.co.kr
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