North Korea says the Chinese president Xi Jinping has accepted an invitation to make a landmark visit to Pyongyang, as both China and South Korea called on the US to offer more concessions in denuclearisation talks.
Kim Jong-un was expected to arrive back in North Korea on Thursday after a two-day visit to Beijing that, according to South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in, means a second summit between Mr Kim and the US’s Donald Trump is “imminent”.
In his annual new year’s address, Mr Moon said the US “understands that there needs to be corresponding action to expedite the north’s denuclearisation”.
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China’s Mr Xi, who hosted his North Korean counterpart this week, said he hoped Washington and Pyongyang would “meet each other halfway”, according to Chinese state media.
The statements could suggest a softening of the stance of the two countries which have until now stood by the US in pressuring North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, and a blow to Mr Trump’s view that Pyongyang must take concrete steps in that direction before it begins to receive any kind of sanctions relief.
In what would be a further sign of warming relations between the two, Mr Kim was said to have offered in person to reciprocate the visit by hosting Mr Xi in Pyongyang.
Without providing further details, North Korea’s state news agency said: “Xi accepted the offer [to visit Pyongyang].” Mr Xi’s trip to North Korea would be the first by a Chinese president since his predecessor Hu Jintao went in 2005.
While China is North Korea’s only major ally and is suspected of continuing to supply some goods in breach of international sanctions, Beijing – eager to avert conflict on its doorstep – has also been instrumental in pressuring the Kim regime over its nuclear weapons development.
During the talks in Beijing this week, Mr Kim acknowledged China’s “important role” in bringing the US, North Korea and South Korea to the negotiating table, and secured Mr Xi’s blessings for a second summit with Mr Trump.
“[China also] supports the DPRK and the United States holding summits and achieving results, and supports relevant parties resolving their respective legitimate concerns through dialogue,” Mr Xi was quoted as saying by the Chinese state news agency Xinhua.
Peace talks have stalled since Mr Kim and Mr Trump met for a historic first summit in Singapore in June.
While North Korea hasn’t conducted any test launches or detonations in more than a year, it has also displayed no real intention of abandoning the programmes that are seen as guaranteeing the leadership’s survival.
In his own new year’s address, Mr Kim expressed frustration with the lack of progress in talks, and suggested that if things don’t improve – meaning if sanctions relief and security guarantees aren’t in the offing – North Korea might have to find “a new way” forward.
But in his meetings with Mr Xi, Mr Kim said he still believed a second summit with Mr Trump could “achieve results that will be welcomed by the international community”.