Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, is to travel to Pyongyang on Thursday at the invitation of Kim Jong-un, his North Korean counterpart, for two days of discussions about regional issues.
Mr Xi will be the first Chinese leader to visit North Korea for 14 years and analysts suggest that the talks will serve to reinforce the ties between the two long-standing allies as well as send a message to Washington.
Announcing the visit on Monday, Chinese state-run CCTV said: “Both sides will exchange views on the peninsula situation and push for new progress in the political resolution of the issue”.
Media in China and North Korea have reported that the visit coincides with the 70th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the two governments, although it also comes conveniently close to Mr Xi’s visit to Japan later this month to take part in the G-20 summit. The Chinese leader is scheduled to meet US President Donald Trump at the event, with trade relations and security issues high on the agenda.
“Ahead of the G-20 summit, both Mr Xi and Mr Kim are looking to hold more cards”, said Ahn Yinhay, a professor of international relations at Korea University in Seoul.
“By holding a summit with Mr Kim, the Chinese will be indicating to the US and South Korea that they can act as a coordinator for the denuclearisation talks and that they are able to lead Mr Kim back to the negotiating table”, she told The Telegraph.
In return, she said, Mr Xi is likely to seek progress in ending the worsening trade war with the US. Influence over the North may also give Beijing leverage on issues such as the territorial dispute in the South China Sea and US support for Taiwan, which Beijing insists is a renegade province that will eventually come under its direct control.
The Chinese leader is also expected to announce food aid to North Korea, which is struggling to feed its people after bad weather and a shortage of fertilisers affected its agriculture sector.
“I also expect the two leaders to say that they are strengthening their military alliance, which is important to Mr Kim”, Professor Ahn said. “He wants to show the US that China is behind his country and if the US tried to use the military option then the Chinese would come to his assistance”.
In a statement, the White House said it welcomed Mr Xi’s first official visit to Pyongyang as president and stated that the international community is still working towards the “final, fully verified denuclearisation of the DPRK, as agreed to by Chairman Kim”.
Mr Xi and Mr Kim last met in January, when the North Korean leader travelled to China ahead of his abortive summit in Hanoi with Mr Trump. Those talks broke down when the US refused to accept limited decommissioning of the North’s nuclear capabilities in return for the lifting of international sanctions on the regime.