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China's Xi to visit North Korea this week, ahead of G20

Academics say the timing of this gives him a bargaining chip when he meets Trump for talks on the US-China trade spat

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A giant screen flashes a CCTV state media news report on the meeting between President Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a shopping mall in Beijing in January.

Beijing

XI Jinping will this week become the first Chinese president to visit North Korea in 14 years, state media said Monday, as Beijing tightens relations with Pyongyang amid tensions with the United States.

Mr Xi will visit Pyongyang on Thursday and Friday at the invitation of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, said Chinese broadcaster CCTV.

The timing is likely to raise eyebrows in the White House as it comes a week before the G20 summit in Japan, where US President Donald Trump expects to meet Mr Xi to discuss their protracted trade war.

Analysts say the Chinese leader could now use North Korea as leverage in talks with Mr Trump.

China and North Korea have worked to improve relations in the past year after they deteriorated as Beijing backed a series of UN sanctions against its Cold War-era ally over its nuclear activities.

The North's leader Kim Jong Un has travelled to China - his country's sole major ally - four times in the past year to meet Mr Xi.

But Mr Xi had yet to reciprocate - until now. The last Chinese president to visit the reclusive nation was Hu Jintao, in 2005.

CCTV, noting that Mr Xi and Mr Kim have reached a "series of important consensus" in past meetings, said: "China-DPRK relations have opened a new chapter."

The pair will "push for new progress" in a political resolution of the Korean peninsula issue, said CCTV, citing an unnamed official.

With Beijing and Washington at loggerheads over trade, China is keen to remind Mr Trump of its influence in Pyongyang, with whom his nuclear negotiations - a point of pride for the US president, who faces an election next year - are also at a deadlock.

Yuan Jingdong, a professor specialising in Asia-Pacific security and Chinese foreign policy at the University of Sydney, said: "The signal would be that China remains a critical stakeholder. You cannot ignore China and China can play a very important role."

Mr Xi could thus use the trip as a "bargaining chip" in the US-China trade war, he added.

An informed source in Pyongyang said that Beijing was keen to arrange a visit to North Korea ahead of any encounter between Mr Xi and Mr Trump at the G20 summit - with logistics finalised only last month.

In recent days, hundreds of soldiers and workers have been sprucing up the Friendship Tower in Pyongyang, pruning bushes and replanting flower beds on the approaches to the monument, which commemorates the millions of Chinese troops Mao Zedong sent to save the forces of Kim's grandfather, Kim Il Sung, from defeat during the Korean War.

A detachment of soldiers in white jackets was also seen outside the Liberation War Museum - which includes a section on the Chinese contribution - potentially indicating that it may be on Mr Xi's itinerary.

The office of South Korean President Moon Jae-in said it had learned about Mr Xi's travel plans last week.

The Blue House said: "We hope that this visit will contribute to the early resumption of negotiations for the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, which will lead to the settlement of lasting peace on the Korean peninsula."

It will be Mr Xi's first trip to North Korea since taking power in 2012, though he visited the country as vice-president in 2008.

In contrast, Mr Kim has visited China multiple times over the past year - an unbalanced exchange that has not gone unnoticed in Pyongyang.

According to diplomatic sources in the North Korean capital, after Mr Kim's many trips to meet Mr Xi, there were increasingly strong feelings in Pyongyang that the Chinese leader should reciprocate for reasons of saving face.

John Delury, a specialist on US-China relations and Korean peninsula affairs at Yonsei University in Seoul, told AFP recently: "From a North Korean perspective, it's time for Chairman Xi to visit. They do keep score and it's like four to zero.

"So far, Xi has approached China-North Korea relations very much as a function of US-China relations and kind of calculated in terms of that."

The visit also comes as negotiations between Mr Trump and Mr Kim have soured after a second summit in February broke up without a deal; the two leaders could not come to an agreement on what Pyongyang would be willing to give up in exchange for sanctions relief.

Since then, Mr Kim has accused Washington of acting in "bad faith" and given it until the end of the year to change its approach.

Still, the nuclear situation is "under control for now", said Dr Delury.

"That creates a space, a window where Xi could make a visit without expecting a missile test the day he leaves or something like that," he said.  AFP