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China President Xi (center) offers an elaborate welcoming ceremony to North Korea leader Kim during his secret visit March 26. Photo: AFP/KCNA via KNS/Getty Images

North Korea leader Kim Jong-un’s journey to Beijing this week appears to have come as a surprise to the Trump administration but the White House seems to be spinning it as a positive development.

What's happening: Per the Washington Post, administration officials, who were thrown off balance when China announced it had held its own summit with Kim, debated the implications of the meeting but ultimately decided to declare it a positive result of its “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korea.

Big questions: Why Kim made the trip now — and what will he get from China in return — are among the key questions surrounding the visit. According to data released Friday, China may have been squeezing North Korea even harder than required under the current UN sanctions regime. The Financial Times reports that several Chinese exports to North Korea showed recent significant drops:

  • The monthly average of refined petroleum exports in January and February was 175.2 tons — 1.3% of the monthly average of 13,552.6 tons shipped in the first half of 2017.
  • Coal exports were cut to zero in the 3 months ending Feb. 28 — after running a monthly average of 8,627 tons the first half of 2017.
  • Steel exports ran at an monthly average of 257 tons in the first 2 months of this year — down from a monthly average of 15,110 tons in the first half of 2017.

Why it matters: China has reminded everyone that it still has significant influence over North Korea, and that all roads to a solution will have to run through Beijing. Now that Kim has paid proper tribute to China President Xi Jinping, will China back off on some of the pressure?

Go deeper: Former State official P.J. Crowley writes for Axios' Expert Voices that Kim's diplomatic offensive upends U.S. policy. The Korean Central TV has a documentary with English voiceover on the visit, now on YouTube, and it's a fascinating look at an alternate, fraternal Socialist universe.

Be smart: Some skepticism may be needed about the upcoming U.S.-North Korea meetings. North Korea has talked about denuclearizing before, but always with conditions that effectively include removal of U.S. troops from South Korea and the destruction of the U.S. alliance system in Asia.

And, don't forget — in 2009, NYT reported that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said he was “tired of buying the same horse twice” in reference to another deal with the DPRK.

Separately, Russia’s RIA news agency reports via Reuters that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is to visit Russia on April 4 and 5 — and I am now hearing a rumor that Kim will visit Russia soon after.

Go deeper

Updated 8 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds — Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day — The pandemic-proof health care giant.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies — Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults.
  5. Variant tracker

Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates

A teacher prepares a hallway barrier to help students maintain social distancing at John B. Wright Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona, on Aug. 14, 2020. Photo: Cheney Orr/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) filed a lawsuit Friday against the Biden administration for ordering the state to stop allocating federal COVID relief funds to schools that don't comply with public health recommendations such as masking, the Arizona Republic reports.

Why it matters: The Treasury Department said last week that the state would have to pay back the money if Ducey does not redesignate the $173 million programs to ensure they don't "undermine efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19."

Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers

President Biden speaking from Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Jan. 21. Photo: Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A federal judge in Texas blocked the Biden administration from enforcing its coronavirus vaccine mandate for federal workers on Friday, citing the outcome of last week's Supreme Court ruling that nullified the administration's vaccine-or-test requirement for large employers.

Why it matters: It's a blow to President Biden's efforts to increase the U.S.' vaccination rates, though much of the federal workforce has already been vaccinated against the virus.