(ATTN: ADDS more info in last 3 paras, 2nd photo)
By Choi Soo-hyang
SEOUL, Jan. 21 (Yonhap) -- North Korea's planned dispatch of an art troupe to China this week is symbolic of tightening relations between the two countries ahead of a second summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump, analysts said Monday.
The North's official Korea Central News Agency said Sunday that an art delegation, led by Ri Su-yong, vice chairman of the Central Committee of the North's ruling party, will visit China starting Wednesday at the invitation of the International Liaison Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.
Neither the North nor China has unveiled the delegation's itinerary, but the North Koreans are widely expected to perform at Beijing's National Centre for the Performing Arts, China's biggest opera house, on Thursday and Friday.
The arts center recently announced the cancellation of La Traviata, which was scheduled to be staged from Tuesday to Saturday. A source in Beijing said the cancellation appears designed to make the venue available for the North Koreans.
Chinese President Xi Jinping could attend the show in what would be a powerful display of strengthening relations between the two countries in the run-up to a second summit between the North's leader and Trump set for late February.
Earlier this month, Kim made his fourth visit to China in less than a year and held talks with Xi. The trip was seen as aimed at bolstering Kim's negotiating leverage ahead of a summit with Trump by showing that China has North Korea's back.
"The art troupe's visit symbolically shows the close ties between North Korea and China following their fourth summit at a time when the U.S.-North Korea summit is nearing," professor Yang Moo-jin at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said.
It will be a North Korean art troupe's first visit to the neighboring country since the North's Moranbong Band called off a planned performance in Beijing at the last minute in 2015 after China reportedly took issue with contents of the performance featuring the North's nuclear and missile development.
At that time, relations between Beijing and Pyongyang were at a low ebb, as the North forged ahead with a string of nuclear and missile tests in disregard of Chinese warnings. The North was also upset as Beijing backed a series of U.N. sanctions resolutions against it.
But their ties have warmed significantly since last year as Kim launched a peace offensive and sought to improve relations with the U.S. China tried to mend ties with Pyongyang over concern it could be sidelined from the peace process and lose influence over the North.
That led to China to twice send an art delegation to the North last year.
When a group of Chinese artists performed in Pyongyang in April last year, the North's Kim greeted the delegation led by Song Tao, the head of the International Liaison Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party.
That suggests Xi could attend this week's performance.
The recent increase in exchanges between Pyongyang and Beijing is also seen as the North's efforts to boost its leverage in its nuclear negotiations with the U.S. as their second summit nears, experts said.
"This could be seen as indirect pressure on the U.S." ahead of a second summit between Kim and Trump, professor Kim Yong-hyun at Seoul-based Dongguk University, said.
The White House said Friday that Trump and Kim will hold a second summit "near the end of February." Pyongyang and Washington are holding working-level consultations on relevant details in Sweden.
Trump and Kim held their historic first summit in Singapore in June last year and agreed to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in exchange for security guarantees for Pyongyang, but little progress has since been made.
The North calls for sanctions relief for the steps it has taken so far, but U.S. insists that more concrete denuclearization steps are needed.
Meanwhile, North Korea has been increasingly emphasizing China's role in resolving the current deadlock in the denuclearization talks, proposing "multi-party" negotiations to replace the current cease-fire agreement on the peninsula.
After his fourth meeting with Kim, Xi said China will try to play a "constructive" role in realizing the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Also on Monday, Kim Yong-chol, a top aide to the North's leader, returned home via Beijing after his trip to Washington, D.C., where he had talks with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and met with President Trump.
The top North Korean official arrived at the Beijing airport about an hour ahead of the flight's departure, where he met Chinese officials, including former Chinese U.N. ambassador Li Baodong, possibly for discussions about the results of his trip to Washington.
The Air China flight, which was scheduled to take off at 1:35 p.m., departed at around 2:15 p.m.
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