BEIJING – Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Pyongyang on Thursday, marking a diplomatic victory for isolated North Korean leader Kim Jong Un after denuclearization talks with President Donald Trump collapsed dramatically in February.
Xi's visit will be the first trip by a Chinese leader to North Korea in 14 years, since Xi's predecessor, Hu Jintao, met with Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, in Pyongyang in 2005. China is North Korea's strongest ally and the economic lifeline for a country hit by U.N. sanctions.
Xi's visit comes at Kim's invitation and just before a Group of 20 summit in Japan, as well as Trump's visit to South Korea at the end of this month.
Xi and Kim will meet at a time when both are locked in standoffs with Washington over trade and denuclearization, respectively. Before the trade war between the world's two largest economic powers turned acrimonious in the past year, Trump said he was counting on Xi's help to pressure Kim into abandoning his nuclear and missile programs, and some considered Monday's announcement a sign that China's will to impose those sanctions is waning.
But South Korea's government welcomed the news as a sign that the dialogue and peace process over North Korea is resuming. The announcement of Xi's visit builds on a sudden flurry of diplomatic activity related to North Korea, after months of inactivity and backsliding.
Last week, Trump announced that Kim had sent him a "beautiful letter," breaking months of silence after the collapse of their summit in Hanoi in February. Then Kim sent his sister to the border village of Panmunjom to offer condolences on the death of a former South Korean first lady. South Korean President Moon Jae-in also expressed hope while on a visit to Scandinavia last week that an inter-Korean summit, between himself and Kim, might even be possible this month.
South Korea's presidential Blue House said Monday it had been closely consulting with China to make Xi's visit happen at an early date, in the belief that this would advance the peace process.
"We expect this visit to contribute to the early resumption of talks for complete denuclearization and a permanent peace settlement on the Korean Peninsula," spokeswoman Ko Min-Jung said in a statement.
After his scheduled North Korea trip, Xi could sit down with Trump at the G-20 summit later this month in Japan, but officials in both countries have not confirmed plans for a meeting.
South Korea's Moon and China's Xi have also "agreed in principle" to hold a summit of their own in Osaka.
Chad O'Carroll, chief executive of the Korea Risk Group, said Xi's trip, combined with Kim's letter to Trump, might increase the incentive for Trump to seek a short-notice meeting with the North Korean leader at Panmunjom, to restart their stalled dialogue.
But other experts said Xi's trip could be read as a sign of growing Chinese impatience with sanctions and reluctance to maintain pressure on Washington's behalf.
Xi has sought to project an image of his influence over Kim by holding four meetings with him in China in the past two years. On two occasions, they convened days before Kim met with Trump for talks.