China’s President Xi Jinping heads to Pyongyang this week holding out the prospect of fresh measures to support North Korea’s floundering, sanctions-bound economy, the first trip in 14 years by a Chinese leader.

Neighbouring China is reclusive North Korea’s only major ally, and the visit comes amid renewed tensions on the Korean peninsula as the United States seeks to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.

“It is believed that Xi’s visit to the DPRK will present the opportunity for the two leaders to agree on some concrete cooperation projects based on the complementarity of the two economies,” the official China Daily said in editorial this week, referring to North Korea’s official name.

Xi, given the rare honour of a front-page op-ed piece in North Korean state newspaper Rodong Sinmun on Thursday, said China will firmly support Kim “to implement the new strategic line, concentrate energy on developing the economy, improve people’s livelihoods, and promote new achievements in North Korea’s socialist construction”.

While China has signed up for United Nations sanctions and said it is fully enforcing them – despite some U.S. doubts – it has suggested sanctions relief for the country.

China, engaged in a bitter trade war with the United States, has also defended its “normal” trade and business ties with North Korea.

Li Zhonglin, a North Korea expert at China’s Yanbian University, said there was plenty of space for China to assist North Korea in areas that lie outside the scope of U.N. sanctions, such as by increasing Chinese tourist numbers.

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