BEIJING — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Tuesday at the start of a two-day visit at which he's expected to discuss his next steps after last week's nuclear summit with U.S. President Donald Trump.
Kim's visit to Beijing is his third since March, highlighting China's crucial role in efforts by the U.S. and others to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear program. The U.S. has long looked to China to use its influence with North Korea to bring it to negotiations, but the visit comes as ties between Beijing and Washington are being tested by a major trade dispute.
State broadcaster CCTV showed Kim and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, being welcomed by Xi with full military honors at the Great Hall of the People, the seat of the legislature in the heart of Beijing.
In their ensuing talks, Xi affirmed the outcome of the Kim-Trump summit in Singapore.
Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, then hosted Kim and Ri at a welcoming banquet, CCTV reported.
China's official Xinhua News Agency announced the North Korean leader's visit shortly after he apparently landed Tuesday morning, dispensing with the secrecy shrouding previous trips to China by Kim and his father and predecessor, Kim Jong Il.
On the younger Kim's first visit to China as leader, he took an armored train as his father had. His first two trips were not announced until after he had safely returned to North Korea.
Chinese President Xi Jinping “is exerting a lot of influence from behind the scenes,” said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“I expect they will talk about the path going forward and where priorities should lie,” Glaser said. Those priorities, from China's perspective, would be to ensure that Beijing is included in any peace treaty talks and in creating an environment on the Korean Peninsula that will make it unnecessary for U.S. troops to remain.
Security was tight Tuesday morning at Beijing airport, where paramilitary police prevented journalists from taking photos.
A motorcade including sedans, minibuses, motorcycles and a stretch limo with a golden emblem similar to one Kim used previously was seen leaving the airport and later entering the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, where senior Chinese officials meet with visiting leaders.
A similar convoy of vehicles was seen heading in the direction of the Great Hall of the People in central Beijing on Tuesday afternoon.
Kim was diplomatically isolated for years before making his first foreign trip as leader in March to meet with Xi in Beijing. This is his third visit to China, North Korea's main ally and key source of trade and economic assistance.
Following his summit with Trump in Singapore, Kim was expected to meet with Chinese leaders to discuss progress in halting his country's missile and nuclear weapons programs in exchange for economic incentives. Kim is likely hoping to get China's support for relief from punishing U.N. sanctions.
China's foreign ministry refused to provide details on Kim's visit other than to say that Beijing hopes it will help deepen relations between the countries.
Geng Shuang, a ministry spokesman, said at a regular briefing Tuesday that the visit would “strengthen our strategic communication on major issues to promote regional peace and stability.”
Geng said Beijing supported Russia's calls last week for unilateral sanctions on North Korea — ones that aren't imposed within the United Nations framework — to be canceled immediately.
“China always stands against the so-called unilateral sanctions outside the Security Council framework. This position is very clear and we believe sanctions themselves are not the end,” Geng said.
While Beijing and Moscow have supported U.N. restrictions, they bristle at Washington imposing unilateral sanctions to pressure North Korea.
The Singapore meeting resulted in a surprise announcement of a U.S. suspension of military drills with its South Korean ally, a goal long pursued by China and North Korea. That move is seen as potentially weakening defenses and diplomacy among America's Asian allies, while bolstering China and Russia.
The U.S. has stationed combat troops in South Korea since the Korean War, in which China fought on North Korea's side and which ended in 1953 with an armistice and no peace treaty.
South Korea's Foreign Ministry said Kim's visit to China highlights the “constructive role” Beijing could play in disarming North Korea.
Ministry spokesman Noh Kyu-duk also downplayed concerns that improving relations between China and North Korea could result in loosened Chinese sanctions against North Korea.
Cheng Xiaohe, an associate professor at Renmin University's School of International Studies in Beijing, said it was significant that Chinese state broadcaster CCTV announced Kim's visit before his return home.
“This is an improvement. This shows that China is moving toward a healthier and more normal direction in relations with North Korea,” Cheng said. He added that the frequency of Kim's visits — three so far this year — was “unprecedented.”
Yang Mu-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said Kim's visits show the recent chill in the two countries’ ties over Kim's development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles had fully lifted.
“I believe that indicates that the blood alliance between the North and China has been completely restored,” Yang said.
Washington has long pressed Beijing to use its influence to compel North Korea into negotiations, but Kim's visit comes as a dispute over the large trade imbalance between China and the U.S. has been escalating, moving them closer to a potential trade war.
That could make it less attractive for China to use its influence over North Korea to help the U.S. achieve its objectives of denuclearization.
“The potential comprehensive trade war will make the cooperation between China and U.S. in North Korea's nuclear issue more complicated,” Cheng said. “There will be a big question mark over whether China and the U.S. will continue this cooperation.”
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