North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is believed to be on his way back to Pyongyang after a train carrying him and his entourage was seen pulling out of Beijing railway station on Wednesday afternoon.
Earlier in the day Kim visited a factory in the city that produces traditional Chinese medicines, and he is thought to have had lunch at Beijing Hotel before leaving the city.
The factory tour came just a week after he delivered his annual speech in which he outlined his goals to upgrade his country’s industrial capabilities, especially in the area of pharmaceuticals.
The visit to the Beijing Tong Ren Tang plant at Yizhuang – a state-level economic and technological development zone in the southeast of the capital – came a day after Kim celebrated his 35th birthday with a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The visit to China was his fourth since taking over as North Korean leader in 2011.
Few details of the talks or factory visit were made public – state media on both sides tend to be tight-lipped while official visits are ongoing – but analysts said they suggested Kim’s keenness to reinforce ties with China and send a message to the United States that he still has an economic ally.
Tong Ren Tang was founded in 1669 and is one of China’s top producers of traditional medicines. It opened its 600 million yuan (US$87.5 million) facility at Yizhuang in 2004.
Kim said in April that he wanted to start moving away from the “byungjin” policy of developing nuclear weapons and the economy simultaneously, in favour of a strategy focused on improving the latter.
In his annual speech on January 1, he suggested that the development of the pharmaceutical industry – North Korea is a major producer of ginseng, which is used in TCM – could be one way to achieve that goal.
“We must modernise pharmaceutical and medical equipment factories, improve the quality of medical institutions and its service … so that people may realise the superiority of socialism,” he said.
During his speech he used the Korean word for “economy” 38 times, compared with just 21 times a year before.
Major roads leading to Yizhang were cordoned off on Wednesday, while hundreds of armed police officers added extra weight to Kim’s security detail. After about half an hour at the TCM factory he returned to the Diaoyutai state guest house.
Apart from the support it receives from China, North Korea faces major barriers to its economic development.
Since September 2017 it has been subject to UN Security Council Resolution 2375 – signed in response to its provocative actions regarding missile launches and the development of its nuclear arsenal – which prevents it from entering into joint ventures with other countries and restricts how much crude oil and refined petroleum products it can buy.
Despite such restrictions, Zhao Tong, a fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy in Beijing, said that Kim’s visit was intended as a message to Washington that his hermit nation was not without a powerful ally.
“Kim’s high-profile fourth visit to China shows North Korea is not shy about letting the world know it has a closer relationship with China than with any of the other major players, including the United States and even South Korea,” he said.
“Stronger ties with Beijing can help North Korea put pressure on the US and help Kim secure favourable results in his upcoming negotiations with Trump.”