Kim seeks to boost clout with China visit

N. Korea wants to strengthen position ahead of talks with US president

BEIJING/SEOUL: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's visit to China, countering what had been growing estrangement between the Cold War allies, is likely to bolster Pyongyang's leverage going into a planned summit between Mr Kim and US President Donald Trump.

For Chinese President Xi Jinping, the meeting with a long-troublesome neighbour ensures Beijing will not be left out of any deal struck between the US and the Koreas, experts said.

Months of frosty relations between Beijing and Pyongyang appeared to thaw with Mr Kim's secretive trip, which saw the Chinese capital go into security lockdown as the North Korean delegation toured the city.

China said Mr Kim had pledged to denuclearise the Korean peninsula while North Korean state media said Mr Xi had accepted "with pleasure" an invitation to visit the North.

Mr Kim's meeting with Mr Xi strengthens North Korea's negotiating position by aligning the two nations ahead of Mr Trump and Mr Kim's planned meeting, said Mr Wang Peng, a North Korea expert at the Charhar Institute in Beijing.

"North Korea is seeking assurances," he said. "They want to quickly mend ties with China so that they have more leeway with the US and they have more confidence in a good outcome."

Analysts said North Korea has been hurt by tightening UN sanctions and would need Beijing's support for any softening of trade restrictions.

China wanted to show its importance as a partner of the North and ease worries about being sidelined in negotiations between the Koreas and the US

"At the end of the day, China's got huge interests, and it was not comfortable not being at the table," said Mr Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing.

"Mr Trump's decision to hire hardliners such as incoming National Security Adviser John Bolton may have put added pressure on North Korea before the summit," said Mr Han Suk Hee, professor of Chinese Studies at Yonsei University in Seoul.

Speaking at a banquet hosted by Mr Xi, Mr Kim expressed gratitude to China for readily accepting his proposal to visit, according to the North's official KCNA news agency.

North Korea may also be taking advantage of tensions in US-China relations over trade and the disputed South China Sea to draw in Beijing, said Professor Jia Qingguo, dean of the School of International Studies at China's Peking University.

Prof Jia said: "China wants North Korea to denuclearise but does not want to alienate North Korea at a time when China-US relations are deteriorating quickly. We want a denuclearised North Korea, but at the same time we want North Korea to be a friend." - REUTERS