SEOUL/BEIJING, June 20 (NNN-Yonhap) — Chinese President Xi Jinping held talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Thursday, Xinhua News Agency reported, after arriving in Pyongyang on a landmark visit expected to reaffirm their alliance amid trade and nuclear tensions with the United States.
Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, arrived at Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport earlier in the day and were greeted by the North’s leader and his wife, Ri Sol-ju, the People’s Daily reported. Close to 10,000 North Koreans waved flowers and chanted welcoming slogans at the airport, it said.
Xi and Kim reviewed an honor guard and rode in a roofless limousine to leave for the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, the mausoleum commemorating the North’s former leaders, the paper reported.
The two leaders later held talks, Xinhua reported without providing details.
North Korean media has yet to report on Xi’s arrival in Pyongyang.
Xi’s trip marked the first time that a Chinese head of state has visited North Korea in 14 years, and his summit with Kim represented the fifth of its kind since March last year.
Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is expected to be among the major agendas that the leaders will discuss.
Nuclear negotiations have been stalled since February’s summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim ended without an agreement due to wide differences over Washington’s demand for concrete denuclearization steps and Pyongyang’s demand for sanctions relief.
In an op-ed piece in the Rodong Sinmun, the North’s official newspaper on Wednesday, Xi vowed to play a greater role in helping make progress in negotiations on Korean Peninsula issues and addressing Pyongyang’s “reasonable” demands through dialogue, apparently referring to the nuclear standoff between the U.S. and the North.
Hopes for the resumption of the nuclear talks have risen after the North’s leader recently sent Trump a goodwill letter last week in time for the first anniversary of their first-ever summit in Singapore, and the U.S. president described the letter as “beautiful” and “very warm.”
Washington, however, appears firm in keeping sanctions on Pyongyang in place until its complete denuclearization, though it says that door is open to negotiations.
Hours before Xi’s trip to Pyongyang, the U.S. slapped fresh sanctions on a Russian firm accused of helping the North evade sanctions, in an apparent call for Beijing to cooperate in Washington’s pressure campaign to encourage Pyongyang’s denuclearization.
China is the most important ally for North Korea and the most generous benefactor. Washington wants Beijing to enforce global sanctions to force the North to give up its nuclear weapons program.
Observers say that China might promise food assistance and other “gifts” to North Korea during Xi’s trip in a way not to violate global sanctions against Pyongyang.
The timing of Xi’s trip to Pyongyang appears to be well coordinated both for Beijing and Pyongyang.
It is widely seen as a sign that China is trying to use its clout over North Korea as a diplomatic card in its intensifying rivalry with Washington ahead of his meetings with Trump during next week’s Group of 20 meeting of global leaders in Japan.
Experts say that North Korean leader Kim might also use Xi’s visit as a chance to draw support and cooperation from his strongest ally before moving out for nuclear talks again with the U.S., while strengthening his internal power base.
Xi’s entourage includes Ding Xuexiang, director of the General Office of the Communist Party; Yang Jiechi, director of the party’s Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission; Foreign Minister Wang Yi; and He Lifeng of the National Development and Reform Commission.
Xi’s official schedule disclosed to the media includes a summit with Kim and a visit to the Friendship Tower, a symbol of the fraternal bond between Beijing and Pyongyang. Xi could also watch a mass gymnastic performance.