BEIJING (REUTERS, AFP) - Chinese President Xi Jinping told North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Thursday (June 20) that he hopes North Korea and the United States can keep talking and make progress, Chinese state media reported after the two men met in Pyongyang.
The friendship between China and North Korea will not be shaken by changes in the international situation, Mr Xi said, adding that China wanted to play a constructive role in the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.
Mr Xi arrived in Pyongyang for his state visit to North Korea on Thursday.
He was accompanied by a clutch of senior officials, as Beijing looks to bolster North Korea a week before Mr Xi and US President Donald Trump are due to meet amid a bitter trade dispute.
He arrived in Pyongyang at 11.40am local time, according to a tweet from People's Daily.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, greeted Mr Xi at the airport, Chinese state TV said.
Mr Kim's sister, Ms Kim Yo Jong, and officials who played prominent roles in recent nuclear talks with the United States were also on hand.
Mr Xi was driven through Pyongyang in a convertible car and greeted warmly by the crowds on his way to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, a complex that serves as the mausoleum for North Korea's founder, Kim Il Sung, the report said.
"On both sides of the streets were huge crowds of people, a magnificent and unprecedented event," it said.
Mr Xi, who will be in North Korea for two days, is the first Chinese leader to visit the reclusive country in 14 years after relations between the Cold War-era allies deteriorated over Pyongyang's nuclear provocations and Beijing's subsequent backing of United Nations sanctions. His entourage includes the head of China's state economic planner.
Mr Xi and Mr Kim have been working to repair ties, with Mr Kim visiting his older comrade four times in China in the past year and Beijing calling for sanctions to be relaxed.
Mr Xi flew to North Korea on Thursday with his wife Peng Liyuan, Foreign Minister Wang Yi and other officials, according to state broadcaster CCTV.
Chinese flags were raised in key locations and along roads throughout Pyongyang, alternating with North Korean emblems.
Neighbour China is the North's only major ally, and the visit comes amid renewed tension on the Korean peninsula as the United States seeks to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons. The trip is also an assertion of a key leverage point that China has in its deteriorating relationship with the United States, diplomats say.
"Comrade Xi Jinping is visiting... in the face of crucial and grave tasks due to complex international relations, which clearly shows the Chinese party and the government place high significance on the friendship," the North's official Rodong Sinmun newspaper said.
The trip highlights two-way ties that "never waver despite any headwinds," and strengthens "blood ties" between the two peoples, it added in a front-page commentary.
Mr Xi will hold a summit with Mr Kim, attend a welcoming banquet and then see a mass gymnastic performance on his first day, according to Chinese state media.
He is also expected to pay tribute at the Friendship Tower, which commemorates Chinese troops who fought together with North Koreans during the 1950-53 Korean War.
Both leaders are meeting just a week before a Group of 20 summit in Osaka where Mr Xi and Mr Trump are due to discuss a bid to reset ties poisoned by a bitter trade dispute.
The timing of Mr Xi's visit to North Korea was no accident, said Li Zhonglin, a North Korea expert at China's Yanbian University.China could be hoping to play a role in coaxing the North and the United States to resume denuclearisation talks after this year's failed Kim-Trump summit in Hanoi, he added.
"President Xi's visit to North Korea can play a positive role in bringing about a third US-North Korea summit," Li said. "China wants a breakthrough."
Negotiations between Mr Trump and Mr Kim soured after their second summit in February broke up without a deal, failing to agree on what Pyongyang would be willing to give up in exchange for sanctions relief.
Beijing's own trade negotiations with Washington hit a wall last month.
Mr Xi could come back from Pyongyang with some leverage when he meets Mr Trump at the G-20 summit in Japan next week.
In a rare opinion piece published in North Korea's official newspaper on Wednesday, Mr Xi hailed the "irreplaceable" friendship of the neighbouring nations and offered a "grand plan" to bring permanent stability to East Asia.
He also vowed that Beijing would play an active role in "strengthening communication and coordination with North Korea and other relevant parties" to push forward negotiations on the Korean peninsula.
Beijing had fretted over being sidelined after the North Korean leader agreed to meet Mr Trump last year, with the US leader going as far as declaring he had fallen "in love" with Mr Kim.
The editorial was a not-so-subtle reminder that Beijing remains Pyongyang's closest ally.
China sees the North as a strategic buffer from South Korea, keeping the 28,500 US troops in South Korea far from its borders.
Yongwook Ryu, an international relations expert at the National University of Singapore, said Mr Xi could be making a "serious mistake" if he tries to use North Korea as a bargaining chip with Mr Trump, because the US leader separates security issues from economic ones.
"If Xi can put pressure on North Korea to denuclearise, that is, offer some carrot to Trump, then he could perhaps get a concession from Trump or make a trade deal with Trump more likely," Prof Ryu said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang has dismissed concerns that Beijing's close ties with Pyongyang could be used to put pressure on the US, saying "people with such an idea are just over-thinking".
Mr Zhao Tong, North Korea expert at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre think-tank in Beijing, said he does not expect any "substantive discussions" on denuclearisation during the meeting, because "China and North Korea do not have enough mutual trust".
Mr Xi's entourage includes China's two top diplomats and He Lifeng, head of the National Development and Reform Commission, Chinese state media said in a brief report.
China may step up people-to-people exchanges to provide economic help without overtly breaking sanctions and as a way to extend humanitarian aid without offending North Korean pride, said Leif-Eric Easley, who studies North-east Asian security ties at Ewha Womans University in the South Korean capital of Seoul.
State media say drought has hit North Korea, with international aid groups reporting food production has dropped dramatically amid poor harvests.
"More experts may travel from China to support North Korea's technical capacity building, and more Chinese tourist arrivals will help North Korea deal with its shortfall in foreign currency under sanctions."