By Chun Han Wong and Philip Wen
BEIJING -- China said President Xi Jinping will make his first state visit to North Korea this week, a trip seen as bolstering Beijing's bargaining position ahead of a possible summit with the U.S.
The two-day visit, which begins Thursday, would be the first by a Chinese leader to its neighbor and communist ally in 14 years. Announced by Beijing on Monday, the trip falls just ahead of the Group of 20 summit in Japan next week which Mr. Xi and President Trump will attend, providing a chance for them to discuss tensions that are centered on trade but have spilled over to encompass technology and a wider rivalry between the two countries.
By scheduling a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un before a potential sit-down with Mr. Trump, the Chinese leader appears to be highlighting China's influence with North Korea and the vital role Beijing could play in pressuring Pyongyang to eliminate its nuclear programs, regional security experts said.
Mr. Xi's trip would "remind Washington that China can be very helpful in resolving the North Korean nuclear problem, especially at a moment when the United States seems to have big trouble resuming official dialogue with North Korea," said Zhao Tong, a fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing.
While in North Korea Mr. Xi will meet Mr. Kim to discuss bilateral relations, as well as efforts to resolve tensions on the Korean Peninsula, state broadcaster China Central Television said in its Monday evening newscast.
As North Korea's largest trading partner, China is critical to enforcing international sanctions targeting Pyongyang's nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile programs. The Trump administration has sought to sustain a campaign of maximum pressure on North Korea until it relinquishes its nuclear arms. Mr. Kim, for his part, has expressed a desire to improve his country's battered economy, and though he wants the U.S. to ease sanctions while talks resume, China is well-positioned to help in revitalizing North Korea.
Beijing appears to have largely enforced United Nations sanctions thus far, choking off Pyongyang's income from exports like coal and iron ore, though some bilateral trade continues and some Chinese ships have been involved in offshore oil transfers and other sanctions-busting behavior.
Mr. Trump has previously linked China's potential assistance in stopping North Korea's weapons programs with agreeing to better terms in trade negotiations with Beijing. That may have factored into Beijing's thinking in the timing of Mr. Xi's trip to North Korea, said Carnegie's Mr. Zhao.
"If the United States wants to treat China fairly in the trade negotiations, then Beijing can be helpful in resolving the DPRK nuclear issue," Mr. Zhao said, referring to North Korea's official name.
The U.S. Embassy in Beijing didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency issued a brief report confirming Mr. Xi's visit, which is his first to North Korea since a 2008 trip as China's vice president. In Seoul, the South Korean government said it hoped Mr. Xi's visit would hasten the resumption of negotiations on the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
U.S.-China trade talks fell apart last month after officials from both sides had signaled that they were nearing a deal. Negotiations stalled as Washington accused Beijing of backtracking on terms already agreed upon, an allegation that China denies.
Neither Washington nor Beijing have confirmed whether their two leaders would meet separately on the sidelines of the G-20 summit, though senior Trump administration officials have said planning for such a meeting is under way.
On Sunday, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross played down prospects of a major trade deal if the two leaders meet, saying a summit would at best provide "new ground rules for discussion" and a possible schedule for resuming technical negotiations.
While China and North Korea fought alongside each other in the Korean War and have an alliance, relations between Beijing and Pyongyang have been strained in recent decades. That estrangement worsened as North Korea embarked on its nuclear arms and ballistic missile programs, unsettling the region and upsetting Beijing, which wants a stable neighborhood.
Before this week's planned trip, Mr. Xi has refrained from visiting North Korea in his more than six years in power in part, analysts say, to maximize his leverage with Pyongyang and Washington. Mr. Kim has traveled to China four times over the past year or so -- a series of trips that came at critical points in Pyongyang's diplomatic maneuverings with the U.S. and South Korea.
In their meetings, Messrs. Xi and Kim projected a sense of unity between their countries and even some personal camaraderie -- images that experts say bolster Beijing and Pyongyang's respective leverage with Washington.
For North Korea, such leverage has become more valuable as talks with the U.S. stalled in the wake of a February summit in Hanoi, where Messrs. Kim and Trump walked away without an agreement or joint statement.
Pyongyang has blamed Washington for the impasse, saying the U.S. should loosen the broad sanctions hobbling North Korea's economy. The White House has refused, saying it will keep sanctions in place until it can verify North Korea has dismantled its nuclear-weapons program. For each side, China's support is critical.
"China was relieved when the talks fell apart in Hanoi, because it was an opportunity for China to play a role in denuclearization talks again, " said Lee Seong-hyon, director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the Sejong Institute in Seoul. "Trump was the first president to say he would deal with the North Korean leader without including China."
Mr. Lee said Pyongyang could also use Mr. Xi's visit to signal that "unless the U.S. comes back to the negotiating table, they have other allies to turn to."
Mr. Xi's coming visit marks the first time Beijing has labeled a North Korea trip by a Chinese leader as a "state visit." Previous trips were mostly labeled as an "official friendly visit." Foreign diplomats in Beijing say China may have offered the "state visit" label as a diplomatic gesture that characterizes North Korea as a normal nation-state.
Aside from the planned meeting with Mr. Kim, Mr. Xi will also visit the Sino-Korean Friendship Tower in Pyongyang, a monument commemorating China's assistance to North Korea during the 1950-1953 Korean War, officials from the Chinese Communist Party's International Department -- which handles relations with Pyongyang -- said at a Monday news briefing for Chinese media.
The visit will "inject new momentum" into China-North Korea relations, the officials said.
--Dasl Yoon and Andrew Jeong in Seoul contributed to this article.
Write to Chun Han Wong at email@example.com