BEIJING: Xi Jinping will visit North Korea this week, state media said on Monday (Jun 17), marking the first visit there by a Chinese president in more than a decade.
Xi will be in Pyongyang on Thursday and Friday for a state visit at the invitation of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, said Chinese broadcaster CCTV.
"Both sides will exchange views on the (Korean) peninsula situation, and push for new progress in the political resolution of the peninsula issue," CCTV said in a lengthy report that led the evening broadcast.
China and North Korea have worked to improve relations in the past year after they deteriorated as Beijing backed a series of UN sanctions against Pyongyang over its nuclear activities.
Kim has travelled to China four times in the past year to meet Xi.
Xi's upcoming visit marks the 70th year since China and North Korea established diplomatic ties, said CCTV. The last Chinese president to visit North Korea was Hu Jintao in 2005.
Neighboring China is North Korea's lone major ally and the visit comes amid a protracted dispute over the North's denuclearisation with the United States.
"YOU CANNOT IGNORE CHINA"
The timing of Xi's visit may raise eyebrows at the White House as it comes one week before the G20 summit in Japan, where US President Donald Trump expects to meet with Xi to discuss their trade war.
With Beijing and Washington at loggerheads over trade, China is keen to remind Trump of its influence in Pyongyang, with whom his nuclear negotiations - a point of pride for the US president, who faces an election next year - are also at a deadlock.
"The signal would be that China remains a critical stakeholder," said Jingdong Yuan, a professor specialising in Asia-Pacific security and Chinese foreign policy at the University of Sydney.
"You cannot ignore China and China can play a very important role," he told AFP. Xi could thus use the trip as a "bargaining chip" in the US-China trade war, he added.
According to an informed source in Pyongyang, Beijing was keen to arrange a visit to North Korea ahead of any encounter between Xi and Trump at the G20 summit - with trip logistics finalised only last month.
In recent days, hundreds of soldiers and workers have been sprucing up the Friendship Tower in Pyongyang, pruning bushes and replanting flowerbeds on the approaches to the monument, which commemorates the millions of Chinese troops Mao Zedong sent to save the forces of Kim's grandfather Kim Il Sung from defeat during the Korean War.
A detachment of soldiers in white jackets was also seen outside the Liberation War Museum - which includes a section on the Chinese contribution - potentially indicating that it may be on Xi's itinerary.
According to diplomatic sources in the North Korean capital, after Kim's many trips to meet Xi, there were increasingly strong feelings in Pyongyang that the Chinese leader should reciprocate for reasons of saving face.
"From a North Korean perspective, it's time for Chairman Xi to visit," said John Delury, an expert on US-China relations and Korean Peninsula affairs at Yonsei University in Seoul.
"They do keep score and it's like four to zero," he recently told AFP. "So far, Xi has approached China-North Korea relations very much as a function of US-China relations and kind of calculated in terms of that."
It will be Xi's first trip to North Korea since taking power in 2012, though he visited the country as vice president in 2008.
"China and the DPRK are friendly neighbours," CCTV said on Monday, adding that Xi and Kim have reached a "series of important consensus" in past meetings and that a new chapter of bilateral relations had begun.