Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un hold a meet-and-greet. In recent years, North Korea has not become more like China. Rather, the latter has become more like the former . Photo: AFP

Chinese President Xi Jinping will pay his first-ever presidential visit to North Korea on Thursday at the invitation of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, North Korean state media has reported, at a time when Chinese media reported an explosion and earth tremors in the border area between the two states.

In what will be the first Chinese presidential visit to Pyongyang in 14 years, Xi is scheduled to pay a two-day visit to North Korea from Thursday, official Pyongyang outlet the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported on Monday evening, in news that was picked up by South Korean outlets.

The last Chinese president to visit North Korea was Hu Jintao in 2005. Xi visited in 2008, but at a time when he was vice president, not president. Though the announcement of Thursday’s visit is just days away from the visit itself, it is common for Beijing and Pyongyang to keep such news confidential until it is imminent.

Chinese state media confirmed the news of the visit.

“Both sides will exchange views on the [Korean] peninsula situation, and push for new progress in the political resolution of the peninsula issue,” said a CCTV news report on Monday, which noted also that the visit coincides with the 70th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Beijing and Pyongyang.

Shaking ground, shaky timing

Approximately one hour after the news about the visit broke, a “suspected explosion” near the China-North Korean border triggered a small earthquake, Chinese seismology authorities said, according to AFP. 

AFP reported that, according to the China Earthquake Networks Center, the 1.3-magnitude earthquake occurred at 19:38 in Hunchun. Hunchun is a small city  in China’s northeast that is famous for being at the center of the “tri-border area” between China, North Korea and Russia.

Though North Korean nuclear tests have caused earth tremors in the past, so, too, have conventional explosions – such as those detonated during reservoir construction. However, there is no indication that the explosion has any connection to Xi’s upcoming trip.

The game is afoot

Since the formerly isolated Kim unleashed his diplomatic “charm offensive” at the beginning of 2018, he has met Xi four times, each time in China. Kim has also summited with South Korean President Moon Jae-in three times, US President Donald Trump twice and Russian President Vladimir Putin once.

Xi’s visit will be the highest profile trip by a national leader to North Korea’s capital since the South Korean president visited last September.

The timing of the visit may be significant, as Kim has met Xi in advance of previous summits with Moon and Trump.

And following the failure of the Hanoi, Vietnam, summit on North Korean denuclearization between Kim and Trump in February, and a subsequent freeze in Pyongyang-Washington relations, Xi’s visit may signal that the great game of Northeast Asia power politics is back in play.

Read: North Korea’s geography of killing mapped

Beijing appears to have been caught wrong-footed by recent mass protests in Hong Kong, and is also suffering from the fallout of a constantly escalating cross-Pacific trade war with the United States. Both Beijing and Pyongyang are engaged in confrontation with Washington.

Seen in this context, Xi might welcome a diplomatic win – such as by moving the North Korean denuclearization process forward. Such a move could grant him some leverage with Trump, who, like Xi, will be attending the G20 leader’s summit in Tokyo at the end of this month.

The Kim-Moon-Trump nexus

Kim’s invitation to Xi is not his only recent diplomatic maneuver. Last week, Trump received what was, in his words, “a very beautiful, very warm, very nice letter” from Kim, though the US president did not reveal the content of it.

CNN reported that the letter had no substance, beyond a birthday greeting to Trump. However, South Korean President Moon Jae-in revealed last Thursday that there was something “very interesting” in the letter without offering further details.

The day after the G20 ends in Osaka at the end of June, Trump is scheduled to pay a flying visit to Moon in South Korea.

Adding further spice to an already heady mix, South Korea’s Moon said, on a recent state visit to Nordic nations, that he was open to holding another summit with Kim – they last met in September in Pyongyang – prior to meeting Trump at the G20.

Against this backdrop of power plays, secret letters, a G20 meeting and Trump’s upcoming South Korea trip, coffee shop speculation in Seoul has it that Moon might – just might – get this long cherished wish: A trilateral summit between himself, Kim and Trump.

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