SEOUL • Chinese President Xi Jinping has sent North Korean leader Kim Jong Un a rare message, Pyongyang's official news agency reported yesterday, in his first public communication with the neighbouring leader after more than a year.
The note signalled a possible improvement in their strained relationship, which has soured over Pyongyang's growing weapons ambitions even though Beijing is its long-time ally and economic benefactor, Agence France-Presse reported.
Mr Xi's message, dated Wednesday, was sent in response to congratulations from Mr Kim last week for securing a second term as the head of China's ruling party.
China has come under intense pressure from the United States to do more to rein in the North's missile and nuclear tests and Mr Xi's message comes days before US President Donald Trump makes his first official visit to Asia, with North Korea high on the agenda, Reuters reported.
"I wish that under the new situation, the Chinese side would make efforts with the DPRK side to promote relations between the two parties and the two countries to sustainable soundness and stable development and thus make a positive contribution to... defending regional peace and stability and common prosperity," Mr Xi wrote, according to the North's official news agency KCNA.
DPRK stands for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, North Korea's official name.
In his earlier note, Mr Kim had offered Mr Xi his "sincere congratulations" and expressed his belief that their relations would develop "in the interests of the people of the two countries".
The last time KCNA reported a message from Mr Xi was in July last year.
Analysts say that such exchanges have become rare under the current leaders, even though Beijing and Pyongyang traditionally sent greetings and congratulations on each other's key anniversaries in the past.
Professor Yang Moo Jin of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul said the public exchange of messages signalled a willingness on both sides to improve relations.
"The fact that both sides are swiftly trading letters and announcing it carries a symbolic meaning," Prof Yang told AFP.
"If the message was more intimate, we could expect a faster thawing of ties," he added, "but for now, it shows that both sides agree on the need to improve their relations."
Professor Nam Sung Wook of Korea University in Seoul said Mr Xi's reply to Mr Kim could be interpreted as "China's strategic ambition to embrace both North Korea and South Korea" ahead of Mr Trump's visit to South Korea and China, Reuters reported.
Separately, the US military conducted bombing drills recently in the mountains of Missouri to practise hitting targets in North Korea, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported yesterday.
It cited US website Aviationist, which on Tuesday said the US Air Force practised night-time air raids in the middle of last month at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri involving three B-2 stealth bombers, while radio communication was overheard referring to "North Korea's leadership".
Mr David Cenciotti, who runs the website, said: "Was the exercise aimed at simulating a raid on a North Korean 'VIP'? Most probably yes."