By Koh Byung-joon
SEOUL, June 18 (Yonhap) -- Chinese President Xi Jinping's upcoming trip to Pyongyang this week is expected to help strengthen North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's hand in the stalled nuclear negotiations with the United States and bring much needed food and other aid to the impoverished nation, analysts said.
On Monday, both sides made a surprise announcement that Xi will make a two-day state visit to Pyongyang starting Thursday at the invitation of leader Kim. It will mark the first time in 14 years that a Chinese leader has visited the North, and it comes after Kim visited China four times since last year.
The planned visit is widely seen as a sign that China is trying to use its clout over North Korea as a diplomatic card in its intensifying rivalry with Washington ahead of a one-on-one showdown between Xi and U.S. President Donald Trump on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Japan's Osaka next week.
It also comes as hopes have grown for resumption of nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang after the North's leader sent Trump a goodwill letter, which the U.S. president described as "beautiful" and "very warm," nearly four months after their second summit in Hanoi ended without a deal in February.
"In the previous four meetings, Xi had expressed his support for the North's stance on denuclearization, throwing weight behind its phased and simultaneous approach," Hong Min, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said. "Xi could voice more active support for Pyongyang this time as he visits Pyongyang."
"Through the meeting, the North would try to send a signal to the U.S. that what it demanded during their February summit should be seriously reviewed. Xi's trip could be used to put pressure on the U.S.," he added.
The February summit collapsed as Pyongyang wanted sanctions relief as a corresponding measure in exchange for dismantling its Yongbyon nuclear complex, while Washington insisted that sanctions should remain in place until the North completely gives up its nuclear weapons program.
The no-deal meeting was seen as a slap in the face for Kim, who traveled all the way to Vietnam by train and returned home without any progress in easing the sanctions that weigh on his nation's economic growth and people's livelihoods.
"In the face of internal criticism of little progress despite his two summits with the U.S. and suffering caused by sanctions, a visit by the leader of one of the world's most powerful countries and its sole ally could also bolster his grip on power," Hong said.
Xi could also bring food and other aid with him to the North as a gift, as is customary with visits to the impoverished nation by top Chinese leaders. News reports have speculated that Xi could offer at least 100,000 tons of food in humanitarian aid.
China has long served as a main provider of food and energy for the North and represents 90 percent of the North's trade with the outside world. The U.S. has often urged Beijing to use its influence over Pyongayng to get the regime to give up its nuclear program, but China has been unwilling to do so over concern that pushing the regime too hard could result in instability in the North and hurt Chinese national interests..
Xi's upcoming trip has also given rise to cautious expectation about the resumption of nuclear talks.
Given that Xi and Kim met earlier this year just ahead of the North Korean leader's meeting with Trump in February. Xi's trip to Pyongyang is raising the possibility that it could be followed by yet another Kim-Trump summit.
After receiving the letter from Kim last week in time for the first anniversary of their first-ever summit in Singapore, Trump has repeatedly said the relationship between the two leaders remains strong. He also said that "something will happen that's going to be very positive."
"China appears to think that the possibility of a summit between Kim and Trump is high. It seems that China is trying to have its opinions reflected in advance," Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at Seoul-based Dongguk University, said.
"Kim is likely to use Xi's visit as a chance to show that his relations with China are strong and firm and signal that he could go closer to China unless Trump does not act fast," he added.
The professor also said that Xi and Kim could discuss food aid to ease the shortages attributed partly to global sanctions, which he said could serve as a "symbolic" act that demonstrates that Pyongyang has China on its side.
Xi's visit to Pyongyang followed by his trip to Japan for the Group of 20 meeting could play a "positive" role in breaking the impasse both in denuclearization talks and inter-Korean relations.
"While meeting Kim, Xi could convey messages from Trump and President Moon Jae-in. And when Xi joins the G-20, he could share Kim's message with Trump and Moon," Kim of Dongguk University said. "Anyhow, Xi's Pyongyang trip could play a positive role in getting the currently stalled process going again."
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