BEIJING/SEOUL -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is visiting China for the fourth time in a year as he seeks the bigger neighbor's support in setting another summit with the U.S., a development seen as giving Beijing a bargaining chip for trade talks with Washington.
Kim insists on gradual denuclearization and demands that the U.S. ease sanctions on his country before that process is complete. He likely aims for the White House to accept those terms through the backing of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The Rodong Sinmun, North Korea's official party newspaper, showed photos Tuesday of Kim and his wife leaving for China. This unusually quick report for a North Korean outlet reveals Pyongyang's desire to emphasize the close ties between Xi and Kim, whose birthday fell on Tuesday.
"By spending his birthday with Xi, Kim is staging a performance to show their special relationship," a diplomatic source said.
Promoting a dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington benefits China, which prioritizes stability on the Korean Peninsula.
"China maintains that it is very useful for the DPRK and the U.S., as key parties to the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue, to maintain contacts," Lu Kang, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, said Tuesday using the abbreviation for North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. "China supports the two sides in continuing with their dialogue and striving for positive outcomes."
China received Kim amid trade talks with the U.S. in Beijing, which lets Xi's government use its cooperation on denuclearization as leverage in these economic negotiations.
At the same time, "Beijing likely has little desire at this point to risk fueling tensions with the U.S. by appearing to shift its stance on North Korea in way that is more favorable for Pyongyang," political risk consultancy Eurasia Group said. "China does not want to set itself up to have [President Donald] Trump again blame it for allegedly undermining denuclearization efforts."
Each of Kim's three previous visits was linked to talks with the U.S., and the current trip comes amid preparations for a second summit with Trump.
"I am always ready to sit down again with the U.S. president at any time," Kim said in his New Year's address. Trump tweeted in reply, saying he looked forward "to meeting with Chairman Kim."
CNN reported Monday that Hawaii, Hanoi and Bangkok are being considered as locations for their summit.
Kim, meanwhile, has not responded to American demands for a list of nuclear sites and inspections on them. On the contrary, the North Korean leader said in his New Year's speech that if the U.S. "persists in imposing sanctions and pressure against our republic, we may be compelled to find a new way for defending the sovereignty of the country."