SEOUL (AFP) - North Korea's top newspaper carried congratulatory messages from the leaders of Russia and Cuba on its front page on Wednesday (Sept 9), relegating one from China's President Xi Jinping to page two, in what analysts described as a pointed snub to its traditional ally.
The messages were rote diplomatic missives that countries friendly to Pyongyang send every year on the anniversary of the founding of the North Korean state in 1948.
But while those from Russia's Mr Vladimir Putin and Cuba's Mr Raul Castro were splashed on page one of the party-run Rodong Sinmun, Xi's note only made it to the bottom half of the inside page.
Mr Yang Moo Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, said the placement was a calculated brush-off that reflected Pyongyang's growing "resentment" towards Beijing.
"It publicly demotes China to third spot behind Russia and Cuba, even if China is still far and away the most critical ally," Prof Yang said.
North Korea-China relations were forged with the blood of Chinese troops who fought with the North in the 1950-53 Korean War, and Mao Zedong famously described the neighbours as being as close as "lips and teeth."
But ties have become severely strained in recent years, with Beijing increasingly annoyed at Pyongyang's provocative antics and refusal to heed China's calls for restraint, especially over its nuclear weapons programme.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who came to power after the death of his father Kim Jong Il in 2011, has yet to even meet Mr Xi, while the Chinese leader has sat down six times with South Korean President Park Geun Hye, who took office in 2013.
"Pyongyang is miffed at the presumed lack of respect for Kim Jong Un by Beijing, which the North thinks treats the young leader as an adolescent," Prof Yang said.
No matter what efforts the North deploys to play down China's importance, Beijing remains its main diplomatic protector and strategic ally.
And while Pyongyang has been cosying up to Moscow of late, Russia can offer only a fraction of the vital economic support that China provides.