China's leader Xi looms large over North Korean anniversary
FILE - In this file photo taken between May 7 and 8, 2018, released by Chinaâs Xinhua News Agency, Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, speaks to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Dalian in northeastern Chinaâs Liaoning Province. As North Korea celebrates the 70th anniversary of its founding on Sunday, Sept. 9, 2018, the presence - or absence - of Xi could highlight just how much vitality has been restored to ties between Pyongyang and its most powerful backer after a prolonged chill. (Ju Peng/Xinhua via AP, File) (Associated Press) September 4 at 1:33 AM
BEIJING â" As North Korea celebrates a major anniversary this weekend, the presence â" or absence â" of Chinese President Xi Jinping could highlight just how much vitality has been restored to ties between Pyongyang and its most powerful backer after a prolonged chill.
A visit by Xi to North Korea for the 70th anniversary of the Northâs founding on Sunday is expected â" North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has made three trips to China since March this year and has invited Xi to reciprocate â" but neither side has said whether Xi will attend.
China could be keen to demonstrate the strong ties it has with Pyongyang to ensure it remains a key player in efforts to dismantle the Northâs nuclear program. But the celebrations come as President Donald Trump has blamed Beijing for the slow progress of denuclearization.
Below is a look at issues affecting ties between the allies.
WHATâS THE TRUMP FACTOR?
Trump suggests that China has been encouraging North Korea to drag its feet with denuclearization to gain leverage against the U.S. in a trade dispute that has seen both sides leveling tar iffs on $50 billion of each otherâs products. Last week, he tweeted that North Korea âis under tremendous pressure from China because of our major trade disputes with the Chinese government,â adding: âThis is not helpful!â
China wasnât having any of it. Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Washington should âengage in self-reflection and stop flip-flopping and blaming others.â
âRegarding Americaâs attempts to pass the buck, Iâm sorry, weâd rather not accept,â Hua told reporters.
China has already distanced itself somewhat from its significant cooperation with the U.S. on North Korea. After supporting tough U.N. sanctions and scaling back trade with the North after it ramped up nuclear and missile tests last year, Beijing has eased the pressure on its neighbor slightly.
WHAT ARE THE CHANCES OF A XI VISIT?
No Chinese head of state has visited North Korea since President Hu Jintao met with Kimâs father, Kim Jong Il, in Pyongyang in 2005, a time when Beijing was urging Pyongyang to reform its economy and take part in six-nation denuclearization talks.
When the younger Kim took power in 2011, exchanges slowed as Kim sought to assert his independence and China grew impatient with Kimâs nuclear and missile tests. Ties frayed last year when China supported tougher U.N. sanctions on Pyongyang and suspended coal and iron ore imports.
That made Kimâs three visits to China this year all the more striking, a sign that the relationship was back on track.
A visit on such a symbolic occasion would underscore the unique historical ties between the two countriesâ ruling parties. Mao Zedong sent Chinese troops to aid the North after the Korean War began in 1950, setting up a relationship once described as being âas close as lips and teeth.â
Xi would also use the opportunity to reassert Chinaâs claim to a place at the table when key decisions are made concer ning Pyongyangâs relationships with both Washington and South Korea, including over a possible formal end to the Korean War. Beijing is determined to ensure its interests are honored, especially its desire to maintain the viability of Kimâs regime and keep U.S. and South Korean forces far from its border.
âBy going, Xi would reduce the sense that China is being excluded from any diplomacy going forward,â said John Delury, a North Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul. âI think Beijing is worried that North Korea will go its own way and work out new relationships with Washington and Seoul and move out of Chinaâs orbit.â
WHAT IF XI DOESNâT GO?
If Xi were absent from the celebration, it could be a sign that China was displeased with North Koreaâs lack of progress with denuclearization, analysts said.
It âwould be a strong signalâ if Xi did not go, said Michael Kovrig, senior adviser for Northeast Asia at the Internationa l Crisis Group, indicating that âNorth Korea has a lot to do to get back in Chinaâs good graces.â
But China could send a member of the ruling Communist Partyâs all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee such as Premier Li Keqiang to show that ties were still on track, Kovrig said.
Xi may stay away for more practical reasons as well. With China committed to U.N. economic sanctions on the North, it may be looking for real signs of progress toward denuclearization before giving up any political capital.
âFor China, all actions should serve the interests of denuclearization and a visit by Xi will depend on whether there is an agreement on this,â said Guo Rui, a North Korea expert at Jilin University in northeast China.
WHATâS THE STATE OF RELATIONS?
Kimâs visits to Beijing displayed all the customary pomp and circumstance bestowed on his father and grandfather. A separate visit to the northern port of Dalian showed the two lea ders strolling along the beach and chatting amid lush gardens â" all apparently intended to imply a warm personal relationship between them.
Diplomats say Beijing continues to implement U.N. sanctions covering exports of coal, iron ore, seafood and other products. In one area not covered by the sanctions, however, it seems to be cutting Pyongyang some slack: tourism.
Recent visitors to North Korea say numbers of Chinese visitors have exploded in recent months, with busloads turning up at key spots such as the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas and Mount Paektu that touches the countryâs border with China.
China is likely advertising the potential benefits of North Korean compliance further down the line.
âChina has a strategy of trying to prevent North Korea from straying too far,â Delury said. âThis relationship is full of mutual distrust, but they keep it within certain bounds.â
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