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SEOUL, South Korea – From nuclear weapons to huge food aid shipments to a shared skepticism about the United States, Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will have a long list of topics to discuss when Xi heads to North Korea on Thursday.
Here's a look at things to watch for during the two-day visit, the first by a Chinese president to Pyongyang in 14 years.
A 7-DECADE RELATIONSHIP
The China-North Korea relationship is often said to have been forged in blood during the Korean War. China sent hundreds of thousands of troops to fight alongside North Korea during the 1950-53 war. Even after the end of the Cold War, Beijing has been North Korea's most important ally and main aid benefactor, which many experts say gives it a unique influence on Pyongyang.
But their relations have cooled in recent years, and Kim may have frustrated Xi with his aggressive pursuit of nuclear missiles capable of striking the United States and the execution of Kim's powerful uncle, Jang Song Thaek, who had close ties with China. China has at times faithfully implemented tough U.N. sanctions on North Korea, and Beijing's data show its imports from North Korea plunged by 88% and exports to the North by 33% in 2018.
Their relations improved after Kim abruptly began nuclear diplomacy with the United States and South Korea early last year. He has gone to China four times, consulting with Xi before and after summits with U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Experts say Xi doesn't want to be sidelined from the high-stakes global nuclear diplomacy, while Kim also needs Xi's support in dealing with Trump.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of bilateral ties, and Xi and Kim are likely to churn out colorful rhetoric to emphasize their efforts to bolster the friendship, especially now that both are figuring out how to deal with Trump — Xi over a trade war and Kim over his nuclear program.
But some analysts say there could be a limit to the cooperation, and that China isn't likely to offer anything to North Korea that would challenge the United States and U.N. sanctions, such as resuming imports of North Korean coal or other banned items or offering stronger military cooperation.
Past visits to North Korea by Beijing's leaders have been followed by massive Chinese economic assistance to the impoverished North.
The Chinese may send hundreds of thousands of tons of rice to North Korea after this visit, according to analyst Cheong Seong-Chang at South Korea's Sejong Institute. China is believed to have shipped about 1 million tons of corn to North Korea last year, he said. Whatever it gives, it will likely avoid anything that violates the U.N. sanctions.
When Xi went to North Korea in 2008 as a vice president, China reportedly provided more than 300,000 tons of food to North Korea, according to Park Byung Kwang, director of the center for Northeast Asia at the Seoul-based Institute for National Security Strategy, a think tank affiliated with South Korea's main spy agency. And huge food and energy packages accompanied the trips of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in 2009 and President Jiang Zemin in 2001, Park said in a report published Tuesday.
North Korea has regular food shortages, but the problem is thought to have gotten worse this year because of drought, flooding and U.N. sanctions that have blocked fuel and fertilizer shipments. U.N. food agencies said in a joint assessment published in May that about 10 million people in North Korea faced severe food shortages.
Xi may also try to persuade Kim to resume nuclear talks with the United States, something he could present to Trump if they meet at the G-20 summit in Japan next week.
But it's unlikely that Xi will coax any meaningful concessions from Kim, who told Trump to come up with new proposals after the U.S. president rebuffed Kim's request for major sanctions relief in return for partial disarmament steps.
Xi could repeat his support for Kim's past vague denuclearization pledges. Or he might come out against the strengthening of sanctions and military pressure on North Korea. Whatever Xi says publicly, Kim will likely see his meeting with Xi as strengthening his position with Trump.
"One positive thing for the nuclear negotiations is that Xi will likely urge Kim to show a stronger commitment to dialogue and refrain from provocations like weapons tests," said Wi Sung-lac, a former South Korean nuclear negotiator.
TEAMING UP AGAINST WASHINGTON
The Xi-Kim summit may also be another sign that an anti-U.S. united front is emerging among China, Russia and North Korea — old Cold War-era allies. It's unclear if the nations will openly challenge Washington, but some believe that North Korea wants the restoration of such a trilateral alliance. This week's summit comes after both the North Korean and Chinese leaders visited Russia separately in recent months to talk with President Vladimir Putin.
If Beijing, Pyongyang and Moscow team up on foreign relations and security issues, it won't bode well for allies Seoul and Washington, according to Lim Soo-ho, an analyst from the Seoul-based Institute for National Security. The U.S.-led push to resolve the standoff with North Korea will be complicated by conflicts between Washington and Beijing as they continue to face off over trade and security issues, he said.
"The reason why we saw diplomatic progress in 2018 was that the United States and China were able to push aside many of their differences in trade and regional issues in Southeast Asia and cooperate on the nuclear negotiations with the North," Lim said. "But with the United States now hitting China hard on the trade front, Beijing is less inclined to cooperate on the North Korean nuclear issue."
Cheong from the Sejong Institute said it's clear North Korea sees stronger relations with China and Russia as a way to strengthen its position on the international stage and wants to use it as propaganda for a domestic audience.