Xi Jinping received a full state welcome from North Korea’s Kim Jong Un -- with a 21-gun salute and convertible ride past cheering crowds -- as the Chinese president began the first such visit in 14 years.
The two leaders held talks after Xi’s arrival in the North Korean capital, Chinese state media said, without elaborating. Besides showcasing ties that stretch back to the 1950-53 Korean War, Xi and and Kim were expected to use the visit to stake out common ground in their current struggles with U.S. President Donald Trump.
The trip comes just a week ahead of Xi’s planned meeting with Trump on the sidelines the Group of 20 summit in Japan, in what’s shaping up to be a possible turning point in the trade war between the world’s two largest economies. The visit demonstrates China’s broader influence in the region, especially in North Korea, which relies on its larger neighbor for vital trade and security backing.
Nuclear talks between the U.S. and North Korea stalled after Trump walked out on his second meeting with Kim in February without a deal to reduce the country’s arsenal. Kim has sought to maintain his diplomatic push despite the U.S. setback, meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin in April.
While Xi has stayed largely on the sidelines during talks between Trump and Kim, the country has played a key role, both by approving United Nations sanctions against North Korea and by backing Kim. Xi has hosted Kim in Beijing before both of the North Korean leader’s meetings with Trump.
The Chinese president arrived in Pyongyang before noon local time on Thursday accompanied by his wife, Peng Liyuan, the official Xinhua News Agency said. He was greeted by Kim at the airport and inspected an honor guard before driving past flag-waving crowds that Chinese state media said contained hundreds of thousands of people.
The crowds held banners proclaiming that friendship between the two countries “shall be eternal.” The welcome demonstrated how far the sometimes fraught ties between the two neighbors have improved since Kim made his first visit to Beijing last year.
Xi’s entourage included top diplomats Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi, as well as He Lifeng, head of the National Development and Reform Commission. Kim was joined by top North Korean official Kim Yong Chol and his sister Kim Yo Jong, according the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper.
Talks between Trump and Kim have made little progress since they held a historic meeting in Singapore a year ago. The pair agreed at that meeting to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” without defining what that meant or setting deadlines.
Those negotiations broke down in February after Trump rejected Kim’s offer to close some nuclear facilities in exchange for the elimination of the most severe UN sanctions on North Korea. While China says it supports a nuclear-free Korea, it advocates a phased approach similar to Kim’s position.
Thae Yong Ho, a former North Korean ambassador to the U.K. who defected, told the Dong-a Ilbo newspaper on Thursday that the summit signaled that Kim saw China rather than South Korea as his preferred mediating partner.
“North Korea is drawing up a new plan for third summit with U.S.,” Thae told the paper. “And the starting point of that is Xi’s North Korea visit.”