SEOUL (AFP, NYTIMES, WASHINGTON POST, REUTERS) - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's visit to China - his first overseas trip since inheriting power in 2011 - is the most tangible and dramatic step so far in a four-way diplomatic dance.
It comes with Kim due to hold a summit next month with South Korea's Moon Jae In, and ahead of a planned meeting with US President Donald Trump - events that give both Pyongyang and Beijing new incentives to repair their battered relationship, analysts say.
Chinese experts said a visit by a senior North Korean leader to Beijing before the meetings with Moon and Trump made sense.
“At a possibly historic moment, before the start of a dramatic play on the Korean Peninsula, China was losing the spotlight,” said Cheng Xiaohe, a North Korea expert at Beijing’s Renmin University.
China wants to regain its influence in what it sees as its back yard, and protect its interests.
"Order is restored under heaven," tweeted veteran Korea-watcher Aidan Foster-Carter, adding that upcoming summits would be different in tone and content now Kim and Xi Jinping have met.
Kim's meeting with the Chinese president brings Beijing back onto a stage where it had played a key role for decades as Pyongyang's diplomatic guardian and its chief source of aid and trade.
Zhang Liangui, a retired professor and Korea scholar at the Central Party School in Beijing, said:“The North Korea nuclear issue cannot be solved by solely relying on negotiations between North Korea and the United States, because, essentially, the nuclear issue is a regional security issue, not an issue of the relationship between North Korea and the United States.”
A MARKER OF KIM'S CONFIDENCE
Some analysts say the trip points to Kim's confidence about his grip on power back home.
With North Korea's regime apparatus firmly under his thumb, he has felt ready to leave the country, writes Mr Ankit Panda, an adjunct senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, in a piece for BBC News.
"A less secure leader might have feared a challenge to his authority or even a coup had he left the country prematurely. But not only is Kim now confident enough to leave the country, he is seen playing the role of statesman, standing alongside Xi, himself the leader of a nuclear power state and permanent member of the United Nations Security Council," he adds,
"And like Kim, Xi - following a recent change to China's constitution - will almost certainly lead his country for life, so their personal relationship matters."
PROTECTION BY BIG BROTHER
For the North, it is a chance to rekindle a relationship it has seemingly deliberately allowed to cool - and the prospect of an insurance policy if talks with Washington do not go well.
The rapprochement has been brought about by the same events that have driven Pyongyang's detente with Seoul and Washington: the North's nuclear advances, Washington's hardline rhetoric and the growing impact of sanctions on the economy. An atmosphere of cooperation fostered by the Winter Olympics in the South catalysed the process.
Trump’s decision to appoint hardliners such as John Bolton as National Security Adviser and CIA director Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State may have put added pressure on North Korea before the summit, say analysts.
“It seems that North Korea is not ready to deal with the United States without support and help from its longtime ally China,” said Han Suk Hee, professor of Chinese Studies at Yonsei University.
The appointments have heightened fears that the US might resort to military action if Trump is disappointed by his meeting with Kim.
The US and North Korea still have wildly diverging views of the North's nuclear programme, said Beijing-based independent political commentator Hua Po, adding the summit could go "a lot of different ways".
If the negotiations with Trump fail, he said, Kim will "want China's understanding and support".
"Therefore, Kim must come and communicate with China," Hua told AFP.
Pyongyang is looking to stay one step ahead in the diplomatic dalliance, added Kim Han Kwon, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy.
"North Korea is trying to secure another bargaining chip by showcasing improved ties with China," he said.
Deng Yuwen, an independent Chinese international relations scholar, said that North Korea needed to turn to its old ally ahead of the US summit, as Kim will be sceptical that Trump will guarantee the security of his regime.
"North Korea needs the big brother to protect it at a crucial moment," Deng said.
Relations between Beijing and Pyongyang were forged in the blood of the Korean War, when Mao Zedong's forces saved Kim Il Sung from defeat, but China has grown increasingly frustrated with its neighbour's nuclear and missile antics.
It has shown a new willingness to enforce tougher UN sanctions, including restrictions on oil supplies to the isolated regime.
FEELING BITE OF SANCTIONS
Cheong Seong Chang, senior fellow at the Sejong Institute, said: "Considering the deterioration of North Korea's economy from international sanctions, China is the country that the North most urgently needs to mend ties with."
One of the first things Kim promised to his people when he took power was not to force them to "tighten their belts again".
Now that he claims he has nuclear missiles capable of hitting their country's arch-enemy, the United States, he needs to focus on rebuilding the economy, and for that he needs the help of China and its vast market.
"To the North Koreans, improving ties with South Korea is important, but more important and urgent is improving ties with China," said Mr Cheong.
Zhang Baohui, director of Lingnan University’s Centre for Asian Pacific Studies in Hong Kong, said China might have “thrown the olive branch to Kim to keep him on its side”.
"I guess Beijing will, while encouraging Kim to complete a nuclear deal with the US, offer him massive economic aid," he added.
China chaired six-party talks on North Korea that collapsed a decade ago, but its call to revive that forum have not been heeded so far and it appeared to be on the margins when South Korea announced that Kim had offered to meet with Moon and Trump.
Frustrated by its neighbour's nuclear weapons programme and under pressure from Trump, China has backed a raft of UN sanctions, using its economic leverage to squeeze Kim's regime.
But Beijing is hesitant to go too far, fearing the collapse of the regime in Pyongyang and the instability it would bring. A collapse of the Kim regime will potentially sending waves of refugees into China and heralding the possibility of US troops stationed on its border in a unified Korea.
China wants to see reduced tensions, said Bill Bishop, publisher of the Sinocism China Newsletter, but also wants to be the only country with leverage over its nuclear-armed neighbour.
"China doesn't want a nuclearised peninsula but they also don't want any steps toward unification," Bishop told AFP.
"They're concerned about being left out, with the North Koreans cutting a deal with the Americans that doesn't necessarily reflect Chinese interests."
NORTH KOREA PLAYBOOK
Christopher Green, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, pointed out that Kim's father and predecessor Kim Jong Il travelled to Beijing to meet with the then Chinese leader Jiang Zemin in 2000, ahead of the first inter-Korean summit.
"North Korea is playing its diplomatic cards professionally, and moreover in order," tweeted Green.
Like his son, he added, for the first six years of his rule the older Kim stayed in North Korea "securing his rule domestically, often violently" before starting to meet foreign leaders.
"That is the playbook Kim Jong Un is following."
The secrecy around Kim Jong Il's visit to Beijing in 2000 was not unusual. The later visits of Kim Jong Il to China were only announced by both countries once he had left the country.
In a break with his predecessors' practice of going on foreign trips without their spouses, Kim was accompanied by his wife Ri Sol Ju, a move aimed at softening his image.