TOKYO -- President Xi Jinping of China will make his first visit to North Korea on June 20-21, state media in both countries said Monday, catching experts on bilateral relations off guard.
The announcement was a surprise because North Korea is seen to have moved into a shell since the breakdown of talks between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump in Vietnam in February, said a diplomatic source.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between China and North Korea. Kim reportedly invited Xi to North Korea at their meeting in January and received the nod from the Chinese leader. With no further word on the issue from China, Xi's visit to North Korea was expected to take place at a much later date.
The second Trump-Kim meeting, which failed to agree on North Korea's nuclear disarmament, created distance between China and North Korea for a while. For the summit, Kim made a round trip by rail between Pyongyang and Hanoi running through China, but did not stop to meet Xi.
An increasing number of experts have pointed out that China wanted no additional burden amid its intensifying trade war with the U.S.
Since the failed summit, the U.S. and South Korea reached out to North Korea through various channels about a resumption of talks. But Pyongyang has refused to respond -- even failing to return phone calls.
North Korea has adhered to its non-response stance even though Trump played down the significance of two missile launches by the North in May and when South Korea decided the same month to extend food assistance and $8 million in humanitarian aid to its northern neighbor.
North Korea has also declined to participate in international conferences it attended in the past, such as the Ulan Bator Dialogue on Northeast Asia Security in Mongolia, which is friendly to Pyongyang, on June 5-6. The Japanese government was perplexed as Pyongyang did not respond to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's proposal to meet with Kim without preconditions.
During North Korea's self-imposed isolation, South Korean newspapers reported the alleged execution of Kim Hyok Chol, North Korea's special envoy to the U.S., by firing squad and the purge of Kim Yong Chol, vice president the Central Committee of the North's governing Workers' Party of Korea.
"Pyongyang has sought to rebuild its internal management system thrown into confusion due to the unexpected failure of the Trump-Kim meeting in Hanoi and recently completed the work at last," an expert on North Korea said.
Xi may be visiting North Korea earlier than expected because he is set to meet Trump on the sidelines of a Group of 20 summit in Osaka in late June. The North Korean issue is one of the few useful cards enabling China to take the initiative in dealing with the U.S.
North Korea would have to accept Xi in any case because, after all, it is North Korea that invited him in the first place. In other words, China will play an unexpected role in pulling North Korea out of self-retreat and onto the world stage again.
There are benefits that North Korea can expect from Xi's visit -- large-scale food and other assistance from China in the short run. And in the medium to long term, support in negotiating with the U.S. for a denuclearization deal which eventually would ease international sanctions.
But there are risks for North Korea as well. As China's negotiations with the U.S. have bogged down, Xi may demand bold action by Pyongyang toward denuclearization in his showdown with Trump.
Kim envisions winning a security guarantee for his regime and full removal of international sanctions in return for a nuclear disarmament deal through the U.S.-North Korea summit. It is by no means easy for him to take a stance acceptable to both the U.S. and China.
Xi may appear reliable but also burdensome to the young North Korean leader in his 30s.
In contrast with China's Xinhua News Agency's detailed analysis of the significance of Xi's visit, the North's Korean Central News Agency merely carried a short report about Beijing's decision on the visit as if to reflect Pyongyang's true feelings about the coming event.