China's Xi to visit North Korea this week ahead of G20

Eva Xiao with Sebastien Berger in Pyongyang
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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has visited Beijing four times in the past year to meet China's president Xi Jinping

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has visited Beijing four times in the past year to meet China's president Xi Jinping (AFP Photo/Nicolas ASFOURI)

Xi Jinping will make the first trip to North Korea by a Chinese president in 14 years this week, state media said Monday, as Beijing tightens relations with Pyongyang amid tensions with the United States.

Xi will visit Pyongyang on Thursday and Friday at the invitation of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, said Chinese official news agency Xinhua.

The timing is likely to raise eyebrows at the White House as it comes one week before the G20 summit in Japan, where US President Donald Trump expects to meet with Xi to discuss their protracted trade war.

Analysts say Xi could now use North Korea as leverage in talks with Trump.

China and North Korea have worked to improve relations in the past year after they deteriorated as Beijing backed a series of UN sanctions against its Cold War-era ally over its nuclear activities.

The North's leader Kim Jong Un has travelled to China -- his country's sole major ally -- four times in the past year to meet Xi.

But Xi had yet to reciprocate until now. It will be the first trip there by a Chinese president since Hu Jintao went in 2005.

The meetings between the two leaders over the past year have "opened a new chapter for China-DPRK relations," said Xinhua, citing Song Tao, a Chinese official who briefed the press on Monday.

In the upcoming visit, "the two sides will further exchange views on the Korean Peninsula situation in the hope of achieving progress in promoting the political settlement of the issue", the report added.

- 'Critical stakeholder' -

With Beijing and Washington at loggerheads over trade, China is keen to remind Trump of its influence in Pyongyang, with whom his nuclear negotiations -- a point of pride for the US president, who faces an election next year -- are also at a deadlock.

"The signal would be that China remains a critical stakeholder," said Jingdong Yuan, a professor specialising in Asia-Pacific security and Chinese foreign policy at the University of Sydney.

"You cannot ignore China and China can play a very important role," he told AFP. Xi could thus use the trip as a "bargaining chip" in the US-China trade war, he added.

According to an informed source in Pyongyang, Beijing was keen to arrange a visit to North Korea ahead of any encounter between Xi and Trump at the G20 summit -- with logistics finalised only last month.

In recent days, hundreds of soldiers and workers have been sprucing up the Friendship Tower in Pyongyang, pruning bushes and replanting flowerbeds on the approaches to the monument, which commemorates the millions of Chinese troops Mao Zedong sent to save the forces of Kim's grandfather, Kim Il Sung, from defeat during the Korean War.

A detachment of soldiers in white jackets was also seen outside the Liberation War Museum -- which includes a section on the Chinese contribution -- potentially indicating that it may be on Xi's itinerary.

The office of South Korean President Moon Jae-in said it had learned about Xi's travel plans last week.

"We hope that this visit will contribute to the early resumption of negotiations for the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula which will lead to the settlement of lasting peace on the Korean peninsula," the Blue House said.

-'Four to zero'-

Xi previously visited North Korea as vice president in 2008.

In contrast, Kim Jong Un has gone to China multiple times over the past year -- an unbalanced exchange that has not gone unnoticed in Pyongyang.

According to diplomatic sources in the North Korean capital, after Kim's many trips to meet Xi, there were increasingly strong feelings in Pyongyang that the Chinese leader should reciprocate for reasons of saving face.

"From a North Korean perspective, it's time for Chairman Xi to visit," said John Delury, an expert on US-China relations and Korean Peninsula affairs at Yonsei University in Seoul.

"They do keep score and it's like four to zero," he recently told AFP. "So far, Xi has approached China-North Korea relations very much as a function of US-China relations and kind of calculated in terms of that."

The visit also comes as negotiations between Trump and Kim have soured after a second summit in February broke up without a deal, failing to agree on what Pyongyang would be willing to give up in exchange for sanctions relief.

Since then, Kim has accused Washington of acting in "bad faith" and given it until the end of the year to change its approach.

Still, the nuclear situation is "under control for now", said Delury.

"That creates a space, a window where Xi could make a visit without expecting like a missile test the day he leaves or something like that," he said.

A small 1.3-magnitude earthquake rattled China's border with North Korea on Monday. It turned out to be the result of explosions at a rock-crushing facility -- not a new nuclear test.