Chinese President Xi Jinping accepted an offer to visit Pyongyang after meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Beijing this week, according to state media in the hermit nation.
Beijing, however, has yet to confirm the trip, which some analysts said was possibly because it did not want to increase tensions with the United States.
“Xi accepted the offer [to visit Pyongyang] with pleasure and informed Kim of the plan,” the Korean Central News Agency reported on Thursday, without providing further details.
At a press briefing, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang neither confirmed nor denied the KCNA report but said Beijing would “announce [Xi’s visit to Pyongyang] immediately if there is news”.
North Korea has made repeated invitations for Xi to visit, including in September – as relations between the two countries were warming – to attend its national day celebrations.
South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in said in October that Xi was expected to visit Pyongyang “soon”.
While Kim’s visit to Beijing was his fourth since taking over as leader in 2011 – his previous three came in the space of three months last year – Xi, who was elected president in 2013, has yet to reciprocate.
China’s state news agency Xinhua made no mention of Kim’s invitation but said Beijing supported Pyongyang’s efforts towards denuclearisation and advocated concessions from both North Korea and the United States so that an agreement could be reached at a planned second summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump.
“China supports the DPRK’s continued adherence to the direction of denuclearisation on the peninsula, supports the continuous improvement of inter-Korean relations,” Xi was quoted as saying, using the short form of North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“[China also] supports the DPRK and the United States holding summits and achieving results, and supports relevant parties resolving their respective legitimate concerns through dialogue. China hopes that the DPRK and the United States will meet each other halfway.”
Washington favours complete, verifiable and immediate denuclearisation, whereas Pyongyang wants a more gradual approach known as “phased and synchronised measures”.
Kim acknowledged China’s role in developments on the Korean peninsula, according to the Xinhua report.
“The Korean peninsula situation has been easing since last year, and China’s important role in this process is obvious to all … the DPRK side highly and sincerely appreciates the Chinese efforts,” he was quoted as saying.
“[North Korea will] make efforts for the second summit between DPRK and US leaders to achieve results that will be welcomed by the international community.”
Kim’s visit to Beijing coincided with the latest round of trade talks between officials from the US and China, prompting suggestions he might be seeking to use his links with the world’s second-largest economy as a bargaining chip in his next meeting with Trump.
In contrast, observers said that the fact Beijing had not mentioned the possibility of Xi visiting Pyongyang was because it did not want to appear to be taking a more hawkish stance towards Washington.
Since July, China and the US have been locked in a trade war and Beijing has in recent months been working hard to offset the impact of the conflict on its economy.
“The [Chinese state] media’s silence is obviously a result of a government decision,” said Zhang Baohui, a professor of political science and director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.
“China doesn’t want Washington to read too much into it [Kim’s visit]. As you may remember, after the previous meetings between Kim and Xi, Trump complained that China was trying to sabotage US negotiations with North Korea,” he said.
“If Xi does visit North Korea, it would symbolise the full restoration of bilateral relations since North Korea became a nuclear power. But North Korea would retain its strategic independence and Beijing would not be in control of Kim’s foreign and security decisions.”
Zhao Tong, a fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy in Beijing, said that if Xi did visit Pyongyang he was likely to make clear China’s support for the denuclearisation process to prevent any unwanted backlash from Washington.
“[Xi’s] visit won’t necessarily be seen by Washington as provocation as long as China reaffirms the message … that it wants to help create the conditions for North Korea to take a more flexible attitude towards achieving denuclearisation,” he said.
“A visit by the Chinese leader would reassure Kim about China’s commitment to their relationship and represent the start of a new era in bilateral ties.”
This article Xi Jinping accepts offer to visit Pyongyang, North Korea state media says first appeared on South China Morning Post