By Ben Blanchard and Josh Smith
BEIJING/SEOUL (Reuters) – China’s President Xi Jinping heads to Pyongyang this week holding out the prospect of fresh measures to support North Korea’s floundering, sanctions-bound economy, the first trip in 14 years by a Chinese leader.
Neighbouring China is reclusive North Korea’s only major ally, and the visit comes amid renewed tensions on the Korean peninsula as the United States seeks to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.
“It is believed that Xi’s visit to the DPRK will present the opportunity for the two leaders to agree on some concrete cooperation projects based on the complementarity of the two economies,” the official China Daily said in editorial this week, referring to North Korea’s official name.
Xi, given the rare honour of a front-page op-ed piece in North Korean state newspaper Rodong Sinmun on Thursday, said China will firmly support Kim “to implement the new strategic line, concentrate energy on developing the economy, improve people’s livelihoods, and promote new achievements in North Korea’s socialist construction”.
While China has signed up for United Nations sanctions and said it is fully enforcing them – despite some U.S. doubts – it has suggested sanctions relief for the country.
China, engaged in a bitter trade war with the United States, has also defended its “normal” trade and business ties with North Korea.
Li Zhonglin, a North Korea expert at China’s Yanbian University, said there was plenty of space for China to assist North Korea in areas that lie outside the scope of U.N. sanctions, such as by increasing Chinese tourist numbers.
“But with U.N. sanctions not lifted, and especially as there is still considerable friction between China and the United States, China probably needs to be a bit cautious,” Li said.
Last month hundreds of Chinese and other foreign vendors took part in an international trade fair in North Korea despite sanctions pressure.
International sanctions appear to be hurting the North Korean economy, as fuel imports are limited and most major exports are banned.
North Korean state media says the country has also been hit by droughts with international aid organisations reporting food production has dropped dramatically amid poor harvests.
Since last year, Kim has embarked on a diplomatic campaign to try to get the sanctions lifted and allow him to jumpstart the economy.
“If Xi goes and supports North Korea economically, even creates a hole in sanctions, then Kim Jong Un doesn’t have to negotiate with the U.S. from a position of weakness,” said Kim Hyun-wook, professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy. “It can have both nuclear weapons and economic aid from China.”
Under its young, third-generation leader, North Korea has seen a rise in private markets and growing consumerism, but it faces tight political and economic control.
China has tried coaxing North Korea on the path to Chinese-style economic reforms before when Kim’s father Kim Jong Il was alive, including setting up free trade zones on the North Korean side of the border, which have largely stood idle.
In April, Kim said his country needs to deliver a “telling blow” to those imposing sanctions by ensuring its economy is more self-reliant.
“North Korea desperately needs assistance from its most reliable neighbour to boost economic cooperation without violating Security Council resolutions,” Zheng Jiyong, director of the centre for Korean studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, told the Chinese tabloid the Global Times.
North Korea and China fought U.S.-led forces in the 1950-53 Korean War, and have traditionally called each other “as close as lips and teeth”, though ties have been severely tested by North Korea’s repeated nuclear and missile tests and other disagreements.
Since a failed summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim in Hanoi earlier this year, Pyongyang has resumed some weapons tests and warned of “truly undesired consequences” if the United States is not more flexible.
Kim has warned he could take an unspecified “new path” if negotiations with the United States don’t yield results.
“I think Xi’s visit might provide an inflection point for North Korea to gradually shift from the U.S.-North Korea Plan A to a ‘new path’ Plan B,” said Kim Dong-yub, professor at Kyungnam University’s Institute of Far Eastern Studies in South Korea.
Xi’s visit kicks off a flurry of high-level diplomatic activity around the Korean peninsula, with Trump set to visit ally South Korea after the G20 summit next week in Osaka, Japan.
In recent weeks there have been signs of preparation for a major event in the North Korean capital, said Greg Vaczi, a guide for the Beijing-based Koryo Tours, who returned from a trip to Pyongyang on Friday.
School children were weeding and grooming lawns, while a number of building facades in downtown Pyongyang were being repaired or repainted, he said.
China’s ambassador to Pyongyang, Li Jinjun, wrote in the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily on Tuesday there was a “festive atmosphere” in the capital for Xi’s visit.
“Beautiful Pyongyang was adorned as new” for the trip, the same paper said on Thursday.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Gao Liangping in Beijing, David Stanway in Shanghai, and Joyce Lee and Hyonhee Shin in Seoul.; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)