PYONGYANG (AFP) – Chinese President Xi Jinping started a historic visit in Pyongyang on Thursday to reboot a troubled alliance, as he and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un face their own challenges with US President Donald Trump.
Xi is the first Chinese president to visit North Korea in 14 years, after relations between the Cold War era allies deteriorated over Pyongyang’s nuclear provocations and Beijing’s subsequent backing of UN sanctions.
Xi and Kim have been working to repair ties, with the young North Korean leader visiting his older ally four times in China in the past year and Beijing calling for sanctions to be relaxed.
But the Chinese leader waited to reciprocate the visit, biding his time to see how nuclear talks between Kim and Trump would play out before deciding to travel to Pyongyang, according to analysts.
After Beijing’s own trade negotiations with Washington hit a wall last month, some analysts believe Xi could come back from Pyongyang with leverage for his meeting with Trump at the G20 summit in Japan next week.
“When both China & North Korea are confronted by US, they have a lot to discuss with each other,” Lijian Zhao, the deputy chief of mission of China’s embassy in Pakistan, wrote on Twitter.
Xi, who will pay a two-day state visit, arrived in North Korea late Thursday morning, China’s CCTV said.
He is visiting with his wife Peng Liyuan, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and other officials, according to Chinese state media.
In Pyongyang, Chinese flags hung throughout the city and residents lined the streets to welcome Xi.
The Rodong Sinmun newspaper, the mouthpiece of the ruling party, devoted the top half of its front page to Xi’s visit, with a colour picture of him accompanying a profile.
In an editorial, it said the visit comes “despite the emergence of urgent and important tasks due to complex international relations clearly shows that the Chinese party and government are putting high importance on the DPRK-China friendship”.
“Our people are proud of having a trustworthy and close friend like the Chinese people,” it added.
Authorities have imposed tight control on coverage of the visit. International journalists in Pyongyang were told they would not be able to cover it, while foreign media organisations that were initially invited to attend were unable to obtain visas.
Sources say the Chinese media delegation accompanying Xi was also reduced in size from initial plans.
The visit will be largely symbolic, with no formal joint communique expected –- as was the case with Kim’s April summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok, Russia.
Analysts say the trip is a chance for China to showcase its influence in the region.
“For North Korea, the coming meeting will serve to show the US that China has its back and to send a message to Washington it should stop its maximum pressure posture,” said Lim Eul-chul, professor of North Korean studies at Kyungnam University.
Negotiations between Trump and Kim soured after a second summit in February broke up without a deal, with the two men failing to agree on what Pyongyang would be willing to give up in exchange for sanctions relief.
But Chinese state news agency Xinhua in a commentary published Thursday said “hope remains alive and kicking” on resolving the nuclear standoff.
In a rare opinion piece published in the Rodong Sinmun on Wednesday, Xi hailed the “irreplaceable” friendship between North Korea and China and offered a “grand plan” to bring permanent stability to East Asia.
He also vowed that Beijing would play an active role in “strengthening communication and coordination with North Korea and other relevant parties” to push forward negotiations on the Korean Peninsula.
“Xi wants everyone to remain acutely aware that he can influence Kim, and that no comprehensive, durable deal with North Korea can occur without China’s assistance–and approval,” Scott Seaman, Asia director of the Eurasia Group consultancy, said in a research note.
China sees the North as a strategic buffer from South Korea, keeping the 28,500 US troops in South Korea far from its borders, and Xi’s trip will include a visit to pay homage at Pyongyang’s Friendship Tower, a monument to the Chinese troops who saved the North from defeat during the Korean War.
Beijing has fretted over being sidelined after the North Korean leader agreed to meet Trump last year, with the US leader going as far as declaring he had fallen “in love” with Kim.
And experts said Xi’s editorial was a not-so-subtle reminder that Beijing remains Pyongyang’s closest ally.
But Zhao Tong, North Korea expert at the Carnegie Tsinghua Center think tank in Beijing, said he does not expect any “substantive discussions” on denuclearisation during the meeting, because “China and North Korea do not have enough mutual trust”.