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N Korea at crossroads

North Korea courts China to break US stalemate

Neighboring allies reaffirm ties on 60th anniversary of friendship treaty

SEOUL/BEIJING -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signaled hopes for greater diplomatic cooperation from China to deal with the U.S. in a message marking the 60th anniversary of their mutual defense treaty.

Kim hailed the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance in a message Sunday to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Kim's advance comes as Pyongyang confronts a food shortage and stalled nuclear talks with Washington. Meanwhile, Xi hopes to strengthen his sway over the neighbor by hinting at the possibility of economic aid.

The pact is "defending and propelling the socialist cause of the two countries and ensuring peace and stability in Asia and the rest of the world now that the hostile forces become more desperate in their challenge and obstructive moves," Kim said, as reported by the state-run Korean Central News Agency.

The message credited the "fixed" stance of North Korea and the ruling Workers' Party of Korea for bolstering bilateral ties.

Xi, in his message, noted that the world has undergone rapid change in the past 100 years. He called for stronger "strategic communication" with Kim to control the direction of China-North Korea relations and lift their friendship to a new stage, according to the KCNA.

Though both leaders urged deeper ties between their countries, Xi was silent on the "hostile forces" cited by Kim.

"Kim Jong Un expressed his interest in cooperating only with China, and continuing with hostility against the U.S.," said Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute. "On the other hand, Xi signaled that he intends to manage developments in the Korean Peninsula in a consistent manner."

The North Korean and Chinese people have worked together as "revolutionary comrades-in-arms, close brothers and sisters and reliable allies on the road for independence against imperialism," Choe Ryong Hae, the No. 2 figure in the Workers' Party, told Chinese Ambassador Li Jinjun at a Friday reception, the KCNA reported.

Pyongyang has intensified efforts to court China, partly because it has few places to turn after denuclearization talks with the U.S. fell through during the Trump administration. President Joe Biden wants the countries to return to the negotiating table without preconditions, and North Korea sees Chinese cooperation as key to drawing concessions from Washington.

North Korea also faces an acute food shortage, exacerbated by widespread flooding last year and a protracted border closure with China to stave off the coronavirus pandemic.

"The people's food situation is now getting tense," Kim told the Workers' Party Central Committee on June 15.

North Korea needs about 5.5 million tons of food annually, but has been roughly 1 million tons short the past few years. Output for 2021 is expected to fall even further. The price of corn, a North Korean staple, has been on an upward trend since the beginning of the year, while rice prices surged in June, according to the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.

China considers North Korea a bargaining chip in negotiations with Washington. But Beijing "did not have enough control over the situation" in the past, a Chinese Communist Party source said. North Korea's recent setbacks give Beijing an opening to strengthen its clout over the rogue state.

Xi promised China's support to help North Korea in "developing the economy, improving the people's standard of living and dynamically carrying out the cause of building socialism" -- suggesting that Beijing could provide food and other assistance.

"Given the measures that the DPRK has taken toward denuclearization and easing the situation, the U.S. should show its sincerity and make a response," Wang Yi, China's foreign minister and state councilor, said in a July 3 speech at Tsinghua University, referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

"The Korean Peninsula issue is a matter at the doorstep of China," Wang said. "We will, as always, continue to play a constructive role for the realization of enduring peace and stability on the peninsula."

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