BEIJING/SEOUL -- As North Korea's planned summit with the U.S. approaches, Pyongyang is rushing to mend bilateral ties with Beijing through high-level meetings and displays of goodwill.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited the Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang early Monday to offer condolences the day after a bus accident killed 32 Chinese tourists in the North Korean province of North Hwanghae.
This marked Kim's first trip to the embassy since becoming North Korea's ruler in 2012, according to a source familiar with the matter. He was likely trying to maintain the conciliatory mood between China and his country, especially with the accident only adding to the Chinese public's skepticism of the North.
Kim later visited survivors in the hospital and stressed that North Korea will do everything in its power to treat them and will cooperate with China on follow-up measures.
Li Jinjun, the Chinese ambassador to North Korea, said Kim's visit demonstrated how much the North Korean leader values the friendship between the two countries.
Bilateral ties had suffered greatly under Kim. North Korea conducted nuclear and missile tests amid Chinese opposition, and China supported United Nations sanctions on the North. But the ice began to thaw once the U.S. and North Korea agreed to hold a summit. North Korea hopes to gain a stronger footing in the talks with backing from China. Kim visited Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing this March.
China, meanwhile, is working to improve ties with neighbors as part of efforts to establish itself as a major global power. It hopes that greater clout on the Korean Peninsula will strengthen its hand at a time of growing trade frictions with the U.S. and forestall American military action against the North.
Song Tao, head of the International Liaison Department of the Chinese Communist Party's Central Committee, also visited Pyongyang with a large art troupe from April 13 to April 18. Kim's own sister, Kim Yo Jong, greeted delegation members as they deplaned.
Song and Kim met twice. Kim promised to continue efforts to bring relations with China to a new and higher stage and said the troupe helped deepen the special bond between the countries' populations. He also asked Song to relay greetings to Xi, whom he called the "greatest friend and closest comrade of the Korean people."
Song stressed that the Chinese government and the Communist Party are firmly committed to protecting and developing bilateral relations.
The Chinese have increased their influence over North Korea in the last month. They and the Russians have been quick to back the North on the possibility of phasing out its nuclear program, despite Japanese and American suspicions of a ploy to buy time. And when the Kim government announced on Saturday a halt to all nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the country "welcomes" this turn of events and expressed hope that the North "will score achievements in developing its economy and improving people's livelihood."
Song is also believed to have discussed a possible trip by Xi to the North. At their March summit, Xi promised to keep in touch with Kim through reciprocal visits and special envoys.
"Xi will likely visit Pyongyang not too long after the U.S.-North Korea summit happening as early as June," a source familiar with Sino-North Korean ties told Nikkei. The source said Xi could make the trip around the 70th anniversary of the North's founding on Sept. 9 -- or even earlier, depending on how the meeting between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump goes.
Kim will also hold a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Friday.