Beijing has indicated that it intends to deepen economic cooperation and high-level communication with Pyongyang, as Chinese President Xi Jinping concluded his two-day state visit to North Korea.
Mr Xi mooted in his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that the two countries "deepen cooperation in pragmatic fields and specific areas", according to Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang at a regular briefing yesterday.
Both sides will also strengthen strategic communication and maintain close high-level ties, he added.
At a banquet on Thursday night, Mr Xi said the two leaders had "jointly drawn a plan for a bright future of bilateral ties", and called the friendship between the two countries a shared and valuable asset.
Analysts said China's commitments sent a message that bilateral ties remain strong, and that Beijing will do whatever it can to support its close ally despite United Nations (UN) Security Council sanctions imposed on North Korea because of its nuclear weapons programme.
"This is important amid the context of ongoing UN sanctions because they illustrate China and North Korea's firm resolve to not give in to US' economic sanctions, and that North Korea will be fine because China will supplement the economic losses," said Dr Chung Young-June, a Korean affairs expert at Shanghai's Tongji University.
He noted that among Mr Xi's delegation was Mr He Lifeng, chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, China's top economic planner.
A source close to the North Korean leadership told The Straits Times that this was a tacit agreement to expand economic and people-to-people links and show the US that the two countries are still very close, even if they are no longer like "lips and teeth", as Chairman Mao Zedong once said.
"China can make the argument that North Korea has stopped conducting missile tests, so it should no longer be considered a security threat," said the source.
But North Korea expert Lyu Chao of the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences told state broadcaster CGTN that China will not flout UN sanctions and instead focus on areas not covered by the sanctions, such as tourism and cultural exchanges.
China also made clear that it expects to play a role in North Korea's denuclearisation process, although no specifics were released that would show that the visit was a success in this regard.
Mr Xi said on Thursday that North Korea had under Mr Kim's leadership "initiated a new strategic line" focused on economic development and improving its people's livelihood, which suggested that China was keen to nudge its ally further towards economic reforms.
Beijing and Pyongyang also agreed that a political settlement to the nuclear issue was "an inevitable trend", said Mr Xi, while Mr Kim said the two leaders had reached an "important consensus".
South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yeon-chul said yesterday that Seoul has urged the North to hold the fourth inter-Korean summit before US President Donald Trump's visit.
"We are sending the message to North Korea that it is not physically impossible, and that it is necessary and desirable," he was cited as saying in a meeting with lawmakers.
- Additional reporting by Chang May Choon