China's Xi and North Korea's Kim bolster strategic and tactical alliances

Warmer ties between communist allies develop as US trade war heats up

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his wife Ri Sol-ju (left) with Chinese president Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan in  Beijing.  Photograph: North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his wife Ri Sol-ju (left) with Chinese president Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan in Beijing. Photograph: North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency

 

China’s president Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have agreed to bolster “strategic and tactical co-operation” amid signs that China may be gearing up to ease sanctions on its ideological ally.

Mr Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan hosted a lunch for Mr Kim and his wife Ri Sol-ju in a “happy family atmosphere” in Beijing shortly before Mr Kim departed the Chinese capital after his third visit in three months.

Shortly before lunch the two leaders had a one-on-one discussion, North Korea’s state news agency KCNA reported.

“At the tête-a-tête talk, the top leaders of the DPRK and China exchanged serious views on the present situation and urgent international issues and discussed issues to further strengthen the strategic and tactical co-operation between the two parties and the two countries under a new situation,” KCNA said.

DPRK refers to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the country’s official title.

The KCNA report was remarkably open, saying the leaders and their wives “got more familiar with each other on several significant meetings, exchanged their genuine feelings” and had “amicable conversation”.

The reporting in both countries has stressed their common communist heritage. The two countries fought together during the Korean War (1950-1953) and are both held in an iron grip by communist parties, with no opposition tolerated.

Mr Xi was “glad that the important consensus reached by China and the DPRK is being implemented gradually, refreshing the bilateral, friendly, co-operative relations with vitality”, the China Daily quoted the president as saying.

Infrastructural investment

Mr Kim also visited the Beijing subway control centre, one of a number of scientific and infrastructure sites on his itinerary. This can be read as a sign that China is keen to resume its role as an investor in the North Korean economy once international sanctions, imposed over the North’s nuclear weapons programme, are lifted.

Soon after he succeeded in meeting his goal of developing nuclear weaponry, Mr Kim said he was turning his attention to building up the country’s economy.

The US, Japan and the South all insist sanctions will only be lifted once denuclearisation takes place, but US president Donald Trump hinted after he met Mr Kim in Singapore last week that China was already relaxing some curbs on trade between the two countries.

There are already signs of loosening sanctions in the tourism sector.

The North’s flag carrier Air Koryo is inaugurating a Pyongyang-Xi’an route, which means it will fly to five Chinese cities including Beijing, Shenyang, Shanghai and Chengdu.

This is significant, as Xi’an is the capital of the central Shaanxi province and Mr Xi’s father is buried there.

Message to US

The quick pace of warming ties also carries a message for the US, as Washington continues to apply pressure on China over trade. Beijing knows that for sanctions to work, Washington needs China’s help as it is the conduit for most trade into and out of the North.

There are reports that US secretary of state Mike Pompeo may visit North Korea this weekend or next week to see what are the next steps after the Singapore summit.

In a sign of the growing regional momentum behind the peace effort, South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in arrived in Moscow on Thursday for a three-day state visit which includes a bilateral summit on Friday with Vladimir Putin that will include the denuclearisation issue.

It’s the first state visit by a South Korean leader to Russia since 1999. He will address the Duma lower house, the first South Korean president to do so, then on Saturday he will head to the southeastern city of Rostov-on-Don to watch South Korea play Mexico in the World Cup.