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China and North Korea seek improved ties

EVER since China hosted three-party talks involving the United States, North Korea and itself 15 years ago, it had insisted that denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula can only come after direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang.

From that standpoint, they have succeeded big time, now that the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump have agreed to meet. However, that breakthrough was achieved without Chinese participation and they then found themselves out in the cold.

Since then, China has been working to redress this situation. To do so, it must first improve relations with North Korea while continuing to cooperate with the US on economic sanctions.

North Korea, too, seeks a rapprochement with Beijing. After Mr Kim succeeded his father in 2011, he had become more isolated as he focused on developing the nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles that he thinks are vital for his country's security.

Over the last 12 months, the gulf between China and North Korea widened as Mr Kim accelerated his country's weapons development programme while China joined the US and other Security Council members in imposing strict sanctions against North Korea.

Events, however, took a radical turn early this year as Mr Kim first indicated interest in taking part in the Winter Olympics hosted by South Korea. When that ended, he invited President Moon Jae-in to North Korea and the two sides then decided on a summit meeting in April. Through visiting South Korea officials, Mr Kim also indicated interest in a meeting with President Trump in order, he said, to discuss denuclearisation. The US leader said yes, and all of a sudden North Korea and the US are scheduled to meet at the highest level, without any Chinese involvement.

The Chinese began to feel that they were out in the cold and decided they had to mend fences with North Korea in order to remain relevant.

The Chinese state media began publishing articles that sent North Korea the message that, when the time comes, China will be its friend on the UN Security Council.

As a permanent member, China will be in a position to bring about a reduction of sanctions, if not ending them outright.

In the words of the state newspaper Global Times, China will "help prevent North Korea from being deceived or squeezed by the US once it begins to denuclearise".

And so, while welcoming the US-North Korean dialogue, China is positioning itself as North Korea's "resolute" supporter who will secure Pyongyang's interests. In this way, China will also be safeguarding its own interests.

When Mr Kim sent a message to Xi Jinping congratulating him on his re-election as president of China on March 17, the Chinese seized on this occasion to send a signal to the North that they wanted to mend fences.

Significantly, in a report on congratulatory messages offered by world leaders, the China Daily listed Mr Kim first, ahead of many other world leaders, including the UN secretary general. It reported that Mr Kim had expressed the hope that "the Chinese people will make greater achievements in the construction of socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era".

In addition, Mr Kim expressed his belief that "bilateral relations would develop in the common interests of the peoples of the two countries". The North Korean leader also "wished the Chinese president big success in his responsible work".

The message from Mr Kim was not unexpected. Last October, after Mr Xi won a second term as party leader at the 19th party congress, Mr Kim also "extended sincere congratulations" to him and expressed the wish that their bilateral relationship would develop "in the interests of the people of the two countries". These messages show that Mr Kim wants to leave open the door to improved relations with China.

Mr Xi responded to that message on Nov 1. According to the official Korean Central News Agency, Mr Xi told Mr Kim he wished that both sides would make efforts to "promote relations between the two parties and the two countries" and make a positive contribution to "defending regional peace and stability and common prosperity".

That is to say, Mr Xi went beyond wishing for improved bilateral relations to talk of regional peace, an allusion to the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue.

The latest Kim message to Mr Xi opens up new possibilities. Mr Xi is likely to seize that opportunity to begin a dialogue with Mr Kim on improving relations and on regional peace, a desire quite possibly shared by Mr Kim. Now that he has secured a summit meeting with the US, China's backing will only strengthen Mr Kim's hand in any negotiations that North Korea conducts with the US.