SEOUL/WASHINGTON -- By visiting China to kick off 2019, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has added a new twist to the process of denuclearization by bringing Beijing into the mix.
"China's import role in this process is obvious to all," Kim said in his meeting with President Xi Jinping on Tuesday. The North Korean side "highly and sincerely appreciates the Chinese efforts," he said, according to China's Xinhua News Agency.
Kim is seeking Beijing's support for a "comprehensive resolution" to issues on the Korean Peninsula, including the easing of sanctions, which Washington insists on maintaining until denuclearization is complete. Amid a bruising trade war with China, the U.S. will be suspicious of any involvement by Beijing.
Kim laid out his strategy for a breakthrough in nuclear talks during his New Year's address, where he pushed for an end to the 1950-53 Korean War through "multilateral negotiation."
The North Korean leader visited China six days later, for the fourth time in a year. Xi told Kim that China "stands ready to work with" North Korea, to play "a positive and constructive role in maintaining peace and stability and realizing denuclearization."
The North's official Korean Central Television aired nearly 50 minutes of footage, touting the success of the visit.
The U.S. has yet to release an official response to the Kim-Xi summit as of Friday morning. President Donald Trump tweeted on Jan. 1 that he looks forward to a second summit with Kim. U.S. authorities are scouting Bangkok, Hanoi and Hawaii as possible locations.
"Major U.S. figures have hinted recently that there has been communication between Pyongyang and Washington over the possible second U.S.-North Korea summit," South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, who wants to increase economic cooperation with the North, said Friday.
But there is little prospect that talks to rid North Korea of nuclear weapons will advance. "New denuclearization measures by North Korea and sanction concessions by the U.S. are needed" as conditions for another summit, said a diplomatic source close to the matter.
The White House has not changed its position on maintaining sanctions until Pyongyang denuclearizes. Kim, on the other hand, said in his New Year's address that he will be forced to seek a "new way" if sanctions and pressure continue.
There is concern that North Korea, which is arguing for looser sanctions in the international community, will gain an advantage as negotiations drag on and more players become involved.
Kim is seeking China's support to ease sanctions before meeting Trump, Kim Donggil, director of the Center for Korean Peninsula Studies at Peking University in Beijing, told The New York Times Thursday.
The number of North Korean ships found smuggling oil in the territorial waters of other nations away from the peninsula is increasing, according to U.S. media. North Korean seafood products also continue to flow into China despite sanctions banning imports along their border.