While US president Donald Trump waits in the wings, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un arrived in Beijing on Tuesday for his fourth summit with China's Xi Jinping - yet another nod to the leader Kim most needs to court as he tries to undermine support for worldwide sanctions while giving up little, if any, ground on denuclearisation.
Increased security at the border crossing of Dandong had tipped off South Korean media that Kim was likely headed back for another meeting with Xi Jinping.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and wife Ri Sol Ju inspect an honor guard before leaving Pyongyang for a visit to China on January 7, 2019. It's Kim's fourth visit to China in a year.
Last year, Xi and Kim met three times in China by around the time of the first-ever US-North Korea summit on June 12 in Singapore.
Behind the scenes, however, the White House has gradually taken a softer stance toward the North, with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence reportedly scrapping a planned speech last month that would have criticized the human rights abuses by the Kim regime - a cancellation that was due, at least in part, to concerns over angering or alienating Pyongyang and further derailing stalled denuclearization talks with Washington.
The visit, confirmed by North Korean and Chinese state media, will likely lead to Kim's fourth summit with Xi in the past year and comes amid plans for a second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump aimed at denuclearising the Korean peninsula.
"From the other prospective, this is something that can indirectly be used to show the United States that China is not playing without any cards in hand", Shi said.
US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross on Monday said that China's economy is more vulnerable to the fallout from the trade dispute.
Harry J. Kazianis, Director of Defense Studies at US based Center for the National Interest, said Kim's overtures to China suggest he "is eager to remind the Trump administration that he does have diplomatic and economic options besides what Washington and Seoul can offer", adding that his New Year's Day speech may suggest a "veiled threat to move closer to Beijing".
South Korea's Yonhap, without identifying its sources, said the two leaders held talks for an hour in which they discussed the second U.S.
The United States has demanded that North Korea start taking crucial steps toward denuclearization, like declaring how many nuclear weapons it has and other details of its weapons program, for future inspections.
These include more Chinese purchases of United States goods and services to reduce a yawning trade gap, increased access to China's markets, stronger protection of intellectual property and a reduction in Beijing's subsidies.
China's official Xinhua News Agency issued a nearly-identical report, while Beijing's North Railway Station was cocooned in security, with dozens of police and paramilitary troops patrolling outside.
"We are negotiating a location", Trump told reporters. Tuesday also happens to be Kim's birthday.
The most sensational was his June 2018 summit in Singapore with President Donald Trump.
Washington is demanding Pyongyang give up its nuclear arsenal before any relief from economic sanctions is granted, while the North is insisting on immediate concessions from the US.
Kim's visit comes as a U.S. delegation opened a second day of talks with Chinese counterparts in Beijing aimed at ending the bitter trade war between the world's two largest economies.
Following his first visit, North Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement noting that Kim had pledged to "steadily carry forward and develop the Sino-DPRK friendship which the leaders of elder generations personally provided and nurtured with sincerity in the course of contributing to the victorious advance of the socialist cause, out of common ideal, faith and deep revolutionary friendship".
"China has always supported both sides to continue to hold talks and to reach a positive outcome", Lu said.
Washington and Pyongyang seemed close to war at points during 2017, as the North staged a series of increasingly powerful weapons tests that got it tantalisingly close to its nuclear goal of one day targeting with pinpoint accuracy anywhere on the USA mainland.
But relations went through a rough patch in recent years as China backed United Nations sanctions over the North's nuclear tests. "Kim is eager to remind the Trump administration that he does have diplomatic and economic options besides what Washington and Seoul can offer", Harry J. Kazianis, Director of Defence Studies at USA -based Centre for the National Interest said in an e-mailed statement. "China has actually been a good partner in our efforts to reduce the risk to the world from North Korea's nuclear capability".
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