BEIJING (Reuters) – Chinese President Xi Jinping departed for Pyongyang on Thursday on a state visit to North Korea, state media said, accompanied by a clutch of senior officials, including the head of the state economic planner.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is seen on a screen while delivering a speech during a session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), Russia June 7, 2019. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
Xi will be in North Korea for two days becoming the first Chinese leader to visit the reclusive country in 14 years, and could bring fresh support measures for its floundering, sanctions-bound economy.
Neighbor China is the North’s only major ally, and the visit comes amid renewed tension on the Korean peninsula as the United States seeks to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.
Xi’s entourage includes China’s two top diplomats and He Lifeng, head of the National Development and Reform Commission, state media said in a brief report.
While China has signed up to United Nations sanctions for the North’s repeated nuclear and missile tests, saying it is enforcing them fully, 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.
North Korea’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper welcomed Xi’s “historic visit” in a front-page commentary alongside a lengthy profile.
Xi’s trip highlights two-way ties that “never waver despite any headwinds,” and strengthen “blood ties” between the two peoples, it said.
“Comrade Xi Jinping is visiting our country in the face of crucial and grave tasks due to complex international relations, which clearly shows that the Chinese party and the government place high significance on the friendship between the two countries,” it added.
Xi is expected to hold summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and pay tribute at the Friendship Tower, which commemorates Chinese troops who fought together with North Koreans during the 1950-53 Korean War.
International sanctions appear to be hurting the North Korean economy, as fuel imports are limited and most major exports are banned.
State media say drought has hit North Korea, with international aid groups reporting food production has dropped dramatically amid poor harvests.
China may step up people-to-people exchanges to provide economic help without overtly breaking sanctions and as a way to extend humanitarian aid without offending North Korean pride, said Leif-Eric Easley, who studies northeast Asian security ties at Ewha Womans University in the South Korean capital of Seoul.
“More experts may travel from China to support North Korea’s technical capacity building, and more Chinese tourist arrivals will help North Korea deal with its shortfall in foreign currency under sanctions.”
Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin in SEOUL; Editing by Michael Perry and Clarence Fernandez