BEIJING — Chinese President Xi Jinping was greeted by cheering crowds after arriving in North Korea for a summit with Kim Jong Un on Thursday, becoming the first Chinese leader to travel to the country in 14 years.
His two-day trip comes days before Xi is scheduled to meet with President Trump during a Group of 20 summit in Japan, leading experts to interpret the Pyongyang trip partly as a means to strengthen China’s hand in its trade war with Washington.
Trump’s own efforts to engage Kim in denuclearization talks stalled after a failed summit in February.
“Xi has the power to bring Kim back to the negotiating table, which will be welcomed by Trump,” said Park Byung-kwang, a researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy in Seoul. “Xi can use this leverage to strengthen China’s position in trade talks with the United States. But if Xi’s talks with Trump at the G-20 don’t end well, then Beijing can potentially pull Pyongyang away from Washington.”
Chinese state media carried video, images and reports of Xi being given a grand welcome at Pyongyang airport, with Kim and wife Ri Sol Ju “waiting smilingly by the airstair as thousands of North Koreans cheered.”
After a 21-gun salute, Xi and Kim watched a military parade together, Chinese media said. Xi was then driven in an open-top car, standing with Kim at his side and waving at crowds of people lining the streets, on bridges and looking from the windows of apartment buildings.
“Tens of thousands of residents in their Sunday best lined the streets, waving Chinese and North Korean flags and bouquets and shouting enthusiastically in welcome of their distinguished Chinese guest,” Chinese news agency Xinhua reported.
Xi then went to a square near a mausoleum for North Korea’s founding ruler, Kim Il Sung, where he greeted members of North Korea’s ruling party. He later sat down for talks with Kim Jong Un.
Before departing this week, Xi published a letter in a North Korean newspaper calling for “a political resolution to issues on the Korean Peninsula and securing peace and stability in the region.”
Park said the comment means Xi is “telling Pyongyang to refrain from provocations and Washington to hold back military threats.”
Xi also said China supports North Korea’s efforts to maintain “the right direction to politically resolve the issues on the Korean Peninsula,” adding that Pyongyang’s “rational interests” should be met “through dialogue.”
There have been four meetings between Xi and Kim in China over the past two years. On two occasions, they convened days before Kim met with Trump for talks.
Xi’s North Korea visit will be the first by a Chinese leader since Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor, met with Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, in Pyongyang in 2005. Xi is accompanied on his visit by first lady Peng Liyuan, Foreign Minister Wang Yi and National Development and Reform Commission Minister He Lifeng, Chinese state media reported.
South Korea’s government this week welcomed the visit as a sign that the dialogue and peace process over North Korea are resuming.
Tong Zhao, a fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, said Xi’s visit was partly aimed at strengthening the relationship between China and North Korea and maintaining China’s regional influence — but there was also an implicit message for Washington.
“By demonstrating its unique relations with [North Korea] at a time when neither Washington nor Seoul is able to resume high-level engagements with Pyongyang, Beijing is signaling to Washington that it is still a helpful, constructive and indispensable partner to resolve important regional problems,” Zhao said.
“This could help stabilize the down-spiraling China-U.S. relationship by persuading Washington to take a more cooperative rather than confrontational approach in dealing with Beijing,” he said.
The visit by Xi marks the start of diplomatic activity, with Xi also set to meet Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the Group of 20 summit in Japan next week. Trump also is due to travel from there for a separate summit with Moon in Seoul.
Lyric Li in Beijing and Min Joo Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.