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China’s Xi Jinping told Kim Jong Un that the world wanted him to make progress in nuclear talks with the US

新华社照片,北京,2018年6月19日 习近平同朝鲜劳动党委员长金正恩举行会谈 6月19日,中共中央总书记、国家主席习近平同当日抵京对中国进行访问的朝鲜劳动党委员长、国务委员会委员长金正恩举行会谈。这是习近平和夫人彭丽媛在北京人民大会堂同金正恩和夫人李雪主合影。 新华社记者 鞠鹏 摄

China’s Xi Jinping told Kim Jong Un that the world wanted him to make progress in nuclear talks with the US, underscoring Beijing’s key role in negotiations ahead of his own summit with President Donald Trump.

The Chinese president said during a landmark visit to Pyongyang on Thursday that he was willing to play a “positive and constructive role” toward achieving the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, the official Xinhua News Agency said. “The international community hopes that talks between the DPRK and the United States will move forward and bear fruit,” Xi said, referring to North Korea’s formal name.

Kim responded that North Korea had “taken many active measures to avoid tensions and control the situation on the Korean Peninsula but has not received positive responses from the party concerned,” according to Xinhua. North Korea’s own state media reports made no mention of the nuclear issue, saying only that the two leaders agreed to strengthen “strategic” communication” amid a “grave and complex” international situation.

“This sends a signal to the US that China’s influence on peninsula issues shall not be undervalued,” said Wang Sheng, professor of international politics at Jilin University who specializes in Northeast Asian affairs. “The US should take this into account, that it needs China’s backing on improving its relations with North Korea and promoting denuclearization.”

The talks came amid a flurry of pageantry in the North Korean capital, in which Kim rolled out the red carpet for the first visit by a Chinese president in 14 years. Besides showcasing ties that stretch back to the 1950-53 Korean War, Xi and Kim were expected to use the visit to stake out common ground in their current struggles with Trump.

The trip, which was scheduled to continue Friday, comes just a week ahead of Xi’s planned meeting with Trump on the side-lines the Group of 20 summit in Japan, in what’s shaping up to be a possible turning point in the trade war between the world’s two largest economies. China’s role as North Korea’s vital trading partner and sole security backer gives Xi leverage in his talks with Trump.

Stalled talks

US efforts to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear arsenal have made little progress since Trump and Kim agreed in their Singapore summit last year to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” without saying what that meant. In February, Trump rejected Kim’s offer to close some nuclear facilities in exchange for the elimination of the most severe United Nations sanctions on North Korea.

While Xi has stayed largely on the sidelines during talks between Trump and Kim, China’s approval for UN sanctions has been vital to the US pressure campaign. Xi also hosted Kim in Beijing before both of the North Korean leader’s meetings with Trump.

Preferred mediator

Thae Yong Ho, a former North Korean ambassador to the UK who defected, told the Dong-a Ilbo newspaper on Thursday that the summit showed that Kim saw China rather than South Korea as his preferred mediating partner. “North Korea is drawing up a new plan for a third summit with US,” Thae told the paper. “And the starting point of that is Xi’s North Korea visit.”

Kim’s position has changed little since warning the US in April that he would wait only until the end of 2019 for the Trump administration to relax its demands – raising the prospect for a renewal of tensions during a US election year.

In the meantime, Kim has demonstrated continued diplomatic support, including a first-ever meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in April, and resumed test launches of short-range ballistic missiles banned under UN sanctions.

Kim’s warm welcome for Xi demonstrated how much the sometimes-fraught ties between the two neighbours have improved since Kim made his first visit to Beijing last year. The Chinese president and his wife, Peng Liyuan, were greeted by Kim at the airport and inspected an honour guard before driving past crowds holding banners that said the friendship between the two countries “shall be eternal.”

Later Thursday, Xi attended a performance of North Korea’s mass games, in which hundreds of performers engage in a display of mass choreography.

Top officials

Xi’s entourage included top diplomats Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi, as well as He Lifeng, head of the National Development and Reform Commission. Kim was joined by top North Korean official Kim Yong Chol and his sister Kim Yo Jong, according to the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper.

Xi said China would continue providing security assurances and development assistance “within its capacity,” in a possible reference to the international sanctions limiting such exchanges. China was ready to help North Korea “address its legitimate security and development concerns, strengthen coordination with it and other relevant parties, and play a positive and constructive role in realizing denuclearization on the peninsula and enduring regional peace and stability,” Xi said.

The Global Times, a tabloid published by China’s People’s Daily newspaper, said in an editorial that it would be wrong to view Beijing’s relationship with Pyongyang as an attempt at “playing cards” in the trade war.

“The traditional friendship between China and the DPRK concerns the long-term strategic interests of the two countries,” the editorial said. “It is not designed to solve a specific problem.”

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