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By Koh Byung-joon and Song Sang-ho
SEOUL/BEIJING, June 20 (Yonhap) -- Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Pyongyang on Thursday, embarking on a landmark two-day visit expected to demonstrate the firmness of their alliance amid China's trade war and the North's nuclear standoff with the United States.
A plane carrying Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, landed at Pyongyang's Sunan International Airport at 11:40 a.m., China's Xinhua and state TV reported.
The Chinese media, however, has not reported whether North Korean leader Kim Jong-un came out to greet Xi, nor has it provided other details. The leaders are expected to move to have lunch together.
The trip is the first to the North by a Chinese head of state in 14 years and the fifth since Beijing and Pyongyang established diplomatic relations in 1949. China's then President Hu Jintao visited Pyongyang in October 2005.
Xi and Kim are expected to hold a summit later in the day, the fifth such meeting since they first met in Beijing in March last year. Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is expected to top their agenda.
Nuclear negotiations have been stalled since February's summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim ended without an agreement due to wide differences over Washington's demand for concrete denuclearization steps and Pyongyang's demand for sanctions relief.
In an op-ed piece in the Rodong Sinmun, the North's official newspaper on Wednesday, Xi vowed to play a greater role in helping make progress in negotiations on Korean Peninsula issues and addressing Pyongyang's "reasonable" demands through dialogue, apparently referring to the nuclear standoff between the U.S. and the North.
Hopes for the resumption of the nuclear talks have risen after the North's leader recently sent Trump a goodwill letter last week in time for the first anniversary of their first-ever summit in Singapore, and the U.S. president described the letter as "beautiful" and "very warm."
Washington, however, appears firm in keeping sanctions on Pyongyang in place until its complete denuclearization, though it says that door is open to negotiations.
Hours before Xi's trip to Pyongyang, the U.S. slapped fresh sanctions on a Russian firm accused of helping the North evade sanctions, in an apparent call for Beijing to cooperate in Washington's pressure campaign to encourage Pyongyang's denuclearization.
China is the most important ally for North Korea and the most generous benefactor. Washington wants Beijing to enforce global sanctions to force the North to give up its nuclear weapons program.
Observers say that China might promise food assistance and other "gifts" to North Korea during Xi's trip in a way not to violate global sanctions against Pyongyang.
The timing of Xi's trip to Pyongyang appears to be well coordinated both for Beijing and Pyongyang.
It 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 his meetings with Trump during next week's Group of 20 meeting of global leaders in Japan.
Experts say that North Korean leader Kim might also use Xi's visit as a chance to draw support and cooperation from his strongest ally before moving out for nuclear talks again with the U.S., while strengthening his internal power base.
Xi's entourage includes Ding Xuexiang, director of the General Office of the Communist Party; Yang Jiechi, director of the party's Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission; Foreign Minister Wang Yi; and He Lifeng of the National Development and Reform Commission.
Xi's official schedule disclosed to the media includes a summit with Kim and a visit to the Friendship Tower, a symbol of the fraternal bond between Beijing and Pyongyang. Xi could also watch a mass gymnastic performance.
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