Xi Jinping says North Korea is 'heading in right direction' after US talks breakdown ahead of historic Pyongyang summit

Adam Withnall

The Chinese president Xi Jinping travels to North Korea on Thursday for a landmark state visit that could have serious ramifications for denuclearisation and peace talks between the US and the regime of Kim Jong-un.

Mr Xi will be the first president of China to visit Pyongyang in 14 years, at a time when he is locked in his own fierce trade war with Washington and amid warming relations between both China and North Korea and Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

In a full-page op-ed published on the front page of North Korea’s official state newspaper, Mr Xi praised Mr Kim’s leadership as taking his country in “the right direction”, despite the breakdown of talks with the US.

Since Mr Kim walked out of a summit with Donald Trump in Vietnam in February, North Korea has threatened to take an unspecified “new path” to boosting its economy, while resuming some weapons tests and warning of "truly undesired consequences" if US negotiators are not more flexible.

While saying it respects UN sanctions on Pyongyang, China remains North Korea’s only major export market and a key importer of goods, and Beijing’s support is seen as essential to Mr Kim’s ability to negotiate from a position of strength.

"China supports how (North Korea) is maintaining the right direction to politically resolve the issues on the Korean Peninsula and supports efforts to find a solution (to serve North Korea's) rational interests through dialogue," Mr Xi wrote in the Rodong Sinmun newspaper.

Analysts say it is possible Mr Xi will speak out publicly during the visit against the strengthening of sanctions and military pressure on North Korea, particularly joint exercises between the US and South Korea.

He may also repeat his support for Mr Kim’s past vague promises of denuclearisation. “One positive thing for the nuclear negotiations is that Xi will likely urge Kim to show a stronger commitment to dialogue and refrain from provocations like weapons tests," Wi Sung-lac, a former South Korean nuclear negotiator, told the Reuters news agency.

But regardless of what is said in statements, Mr Xi’s decision to travel to Pyongyang is itself a victory for Mr Kim and a boost to his position with regards to nuclear talks.

It will also be seen as redressing some of the imbalance in the relationship between the two leaders. Mr Kim visited Beijing no less than four times in the past year, as he briefed his Chinese counterpart on the progress of nuclear talks.

And Mr Kim has also cultivated a stronger relationship with Mr Putin, visiting Moscow in April. Some analysts believe North Korea is keen on reviving the Cold War-era triumvirate of China, Russia and North Korea in a united front against the US.

Historic relationships will certainly be on the agenda for Thursday and Friday’s talks in Pyongyang, according to officials from both countries.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of their bilateral ties, and if the Xi editorial is anything to go by, both he and Mr Kim are likely to issue plenty of colourful rhetoric about their friendship to bolster it going forwards.

For the people of North Korea, the state visit is likely to bring some tangible relief amid reports of food shortages and a failed harvest this year due to droughts and flooding.

Previous Chinese presidential visits to Pyongyang have been accompanied by vast shipments of food aid and a celebratory atmosphere. When Mr Xi himself went to North Korea in 2008 as a vice president, China reportedly provided more than 300,000 tonnes of food for the North Koreans.

Greg Vaczi, a guide for the Beijing-based Koryo Tours who returned from a trip to Pyongyang on Friday, told Reuters there were signs of intense activity sprucing up the main streets of the city ahead of Mr Xi’s visit. “Beautiful Pyongyang was adorned as new” for the trip, reported China’s official People’s Daily newspaper.