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N Korea at crossroads

North Korea counts on Chinese support amid nuclear deadlock

Sanctions pressure leaves Pyongyang increasingly dependent on main ally

SEOUL/BEIJING -- Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Pyongyang this week hinted at North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's reliance on Beijing not only to draw the U.S. back to the negotiating table, but also to support a country hemmed in by American economic and military pressure.

During the two-day visit that ended Friday, Xi pledged Beijing's support for North Korea's system no matter how international politics might change, China's state-run Xinhua News Agency said. The two leaders visited the Sino-Korean Friendship Tower -- a memorial to Chinese forces killed in the Korean War -- to reaffirm the historical bonds between their countries, after which Kim saw off Xi at Pyongyang's main airport.

With Xi and President Donald Trump set to meet at next week's Group of 20 summit in Osaka, Kim may have given his Chinese counterpart a message for the U.S. leader regarding denuclearization talks.

The North Korean leader, who said in April that Pyongyang would wait till the end of the year for Washington to show more flexibility on denuclearization, is thought to want a compromise before this self-imposed deadline, with help from Beijing as a mediator.

North Korea experts speculate that Kim could expand on his offer to Trump at their February meeting to dismantle the North's main Yongbyon nuclear complex, extending it to include other nuclear facilities in a bid to secure sanctions relief for Pyongyang.

Senior diplomat Kim Yong Chol, formerly North Korea's point man in negotiations with the U.S., notably was absent from the summit with Xi, according to the Korean Central News Agency. He had attended the four previous meetings between those leaders.

Kim Yong Chol had helped to drive engagement between Washington and Pyongyang since last year in his capacity as head of the United Front Department, an intelligence arm of the Workers' Party. But he was removed from this post after the failed February summit and disappeared from public view, prompting speculation that he had been executed, though he has since resurfaced.

Responsibility for negotiations seems to be shifting from intelligence officers to diplomats. At Thursday's meeting, Kim Jong Un was accompanied by officials including Ri Su Yong, vice chairman of the ruling Workers' Party; Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho; and Choe Ryong Hae, North Korea's symbolic head of state. This marked Choe's first involvement in such a meeting.

Also present were Premier Kim Jae Ryong, whom Kim Jong Un picked to steer North Korea's economic policy, and senior military official Kim Su Gil -- a sign of North Korea's dependence on China on both fronts.

North Korean migrant workers in China are an important source of foreign currency for Kim's regime. But such workers are banned under United Nations Security Council sanctions, which require them to be sent back within the year. The illicit ship-to-ship transfers that provide the North with oil also reportedly depend on tacit approval from Beijing. China has the wherewithal to do much more, and many think Xi has promised additional support.

Pyongyang, which is prepared for sanctions to remain in place for some time to come, has little choice but to depend on Beijing's assistance. But this comes at a price.

China already accounted for 95% of North Korea's trade in 2017. Accepting more support would only bolster Beijing's leverage. And openly relying on China for security -- a major concern for Pyongyang amid American military pressure -- risks complicating the North's already troubled relationship with the U.S.

China is "willing to provide assistance within its capacity for [North Korea] to address its legitimate security and development concerns," and to "play a positive and constructive role in achieving denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and long-term stability in the region," Xi said Thursday, according to CCTV.

Pyongyang's definition of denuclearization includes a drawdown of U.S. forces on the peninsula. Washington is unlikely to welcome the prospect of Beijing participating in negotiations involving the American military presence in East Asia.

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