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China’s leader Xi Jinping looms large over North Korean anniversary

In this photo taken between May 7 and 8, 2018 released by Xinhua News Agency, Chinese President Xi Jinping, right speaks to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Dalian in northeastern China's Liaoning Province. (Ju Peng/Xinhua via AP)

Beijing: As North Korea celebrates a major anniversary this weekend, the presence — or absence — of Chinese President Xi Jinping could highlight just how much vitality has been restored to ties between Pyongyang and its most powerful backer after a prolonged chill.
A visit by Xi to North Korea for the 70th anniversary of the North’s founding on Sunday is expected — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has made three trips to China since March this year and has invited Xi to reciprocate — but neither side has said whether Xi will attend.
U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday extended an olive branch to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, blaming China for recent stumbles in nuclear talks and saying he saw no reason to resume joint military drills with Seoul.
China could be keen to demonstrate the strong ties it has with Pyongyang to ensure it remains a key player in efforts to dismantle the North’s nuclear program. But the celebrations come as President Donald Trump has blamed Beijing for the slow progress of denuclearization.
Trump suggests that China has been encouraging North Korea to drag its feet with denuclearization to gain leverage against the U.S. in a trade dispute that has seen both sides levelling tariffs on $50 billion of each other’s products. Last week, he tweeted that North Korea “is under tremendous pressure from China because of our major trade disputes with the Chinese government,” adding: “This is not helpful!”
China wasn’t having any of it. Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Washington should “engage in self-reflection and stop flip-flopping and blaming others.”
China has already distanced itself somewhat from its significant cooperation with the U.S. on North Korea. After supporting tough U.N. sanctions and scaling back trade with the North after it ramped up nuclear and missile tests last year, Beijing has eased the pressure on its neighbour slightly.
No Chinese head of state has visited North Korea since President Hu Jintao met with Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, in Pyongyang in 2005, a time when Beijing was urging Pyongyang to reform its economy and take part in six-nation denuclearization talks.
When the younger Kim took power in 2011, exchanges slowed as Kim sought to assert his independence and China grew impatient with Kim’s nuclear and missile tests. Ties frayed last year when China supported tougher U.N. sanctions on Pyongyang and suspended coal and iron ore imports. That made Kim’s three visits to China this year all the more striking, a sign that the relationship was back on track.
A visit on such a symbolic occasion would underscore the unique historical ties between the two countries’ ruling parties. Mao Zedong sent Chinese troops to aid the North after the Korean War began in 1950, setting up a relationship once described as being “as close as lips and teeth.”
Xi would also use the opportunity to reassert China’s claim to a place at the table when key decisions are made concerning Pyongyang’s relationships with both Washington and South Korea, including over a possible formal end to the Korean War. Beijing is determined to ensure its interests are honoured, especially its desire to maintain the viability of Kim’s regime and keep U.S. and South Korean forces far from its border.