Xi reassures Kim ahead of North Korea visit

Chinese President Xi Jinping set the tone for his North Korea visit, the first of its kind in 14 years, with an op-ed touting the relationship between the two countries. Mr. Xi to is likely seeking leverage in the ongoing U.S.-China trade war, experts say. 

Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service/AP/File
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Jan. 8, 2019. Mr. Xi published a reassuring op-ed in China's and North Korea's state news agencies ahead of his diplomatic visit.

Chinese President Xi Jinping praised North Korea for moving in the "right direction" by politically resolving issues on the Korean Peninsula in an essay published in both countries' official media Wednesday on the eve of Mr. Xi's visit to Pyongyang to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Mr. Xi had nothing to say on the biggest outside worry about North Korea – stalled nuclear weapons talks between Washington and Pyongyang – in the article published on the front page of North Korea's main newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, and by China's Xinhua news agency. But experts believe he could use his summit with Mr. Kim, which the North is calling a state visit, to endorse North Korean calls for an incremental disarmament process in which every action Pyongyang takes is met with U.S. concessions on sanctions and security issues.

Much of the article focused on lauding the neighbors' seven-decade relationship. Mr. Xi said his visit on Thursday and Friday will "strengthen strategic communication and exchange" between the traditional, though sometimes strained, allies. The nations fought together in the 1950-53 Korean War against the United States, South Korea, and their allies, but there has been friction in recent years, especially over the North's relentless push for nuclear bombs.

Mr. Xi, who is locked in a bitter trade war with President Donald Trump, will likely meet with the U.S. leader at the G-20 meetings in Japan. He may try to use his summit with Mr. Kim as leverage, by reminding Mr. Trump of Beijing's influence with Pyongyang, which could either help or disrupt the U.S.-North Korea diplomacy, experts say.

Mr. Kim also wants to strengthen his own position against Mr. Trump and is obviously seeking to cement China, the North's only major ally and economic lifeline, as a major player in the process.

"China supports how [North Korea] is maintaining the right direction to politically resolve the issues on the Korean Peninsula and supports efforts to find a solution [to serve North Korea's] rational interests through dialogue," Mr. Xi wrote on Rodong Sinmun.

Lee Sang-min, spokesman for Seoul's Unification Ministry, said the Rodong Sinmun op-ed wasn't the first a Chinese leader wrote in North Korean state media. The newspaper also published statements by former Chinese leaders Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao when they visited the North in 2001 and 2005, respectively, the ministry said. Chinese state media has published essays from Mr. Xi ahead of his visits to other countries.

Nuclear negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea have been at a standstill since February when a summit between Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump collapsed over what the Americans described as excessive North Korean demands for sanctions relief in exchange for only a partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities.

Mr. Kim has said he would seek a "new way" if the U.S. persists with sanctions and pressure against North Korea. The Trump administration has said sanctions will remain in place until the North commits to fully and verifiably relinquishing its nuclear and missile program upfront.

Mr. Kim met Mr. Xi four times in China last year during a diplomatic outreach that also included meetings with Mr. Trump, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

While Mr. Kim is trying to leverage his nuclear weapons and missiles for economic and security benefits, there are doubts about whether he will ever fully deal away an arsenal he may see as his strongest guarantee for survival.

Mr. Kim during his summits with Mr. Trump and Mr. Moon signed vague statements on a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, but the North for decades has pushed a concept of denuclearization that bears no resemblance to the American definition, vowing to pursue nuclear development until the U.S. removes its troops and the nuclear umbrella defending South Korea and Japan.

Some experts say Mr. Kim's moves to make sure China is a major player in the process have been seen as a sign that the North's traditional stance essentially remains. During previous periods of tension, Beijing has called for "dual suspension" of the North's nuclear and missile activities and of the large-scale military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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