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North Korea

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un hosts banquet for Chinese diplomat as ‘flower garden’ friendship blooms once more

Reclusive leader says it is his obligation as a ‘close friend of Chinese President Xi Jinping’ to ensure ‘highest level of treatment’ for Song Tao and visiting arts troupe

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 April, 2018, 3:24pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 April, 2018, 11:32pm

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met visiting senior Chinese diplomat Song Tao, Korean Central News Agency reported on Sunday, in a further sign of improving ties between Beijing and Pyongyang after Kim’s landmark visit to the Chinese capital last month.

The head of the Communist Party’s International Department, who is leading a visit by a Chinese troupe for the April Spring Friendship Art Festival in Pyongyang, was “warmly” welcomed by the reclusive leader on Saturday, KCNA said.

Kim also hosted a banquet for the Chinese delegation, during which officials from the two sides toasted their shared wish “to more beautifully decorate the flower garden” of bilateral friendship.

Photographs carried by the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper showed Chinese and North Korean officials seated at round tables in a massive banquet hall, with a mural of Kim and Xi shaking hands decorating one wall.

Another photograph showed a North Korean orchestra performing in front of a screen with a large image of Xi.

Song and Kim discussed the “international situation” and exchanged views on the two countries’ “common interests”, the KCNA report said.

Kim was quoted as saying it was his obligation as a “close friend of Chinese President Xi Jinping” to ensure the visiting art troupe received “the highest level” of treatment “on a top priority basis”.

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Members of the troupe, as well as China’s ambassador to North Korea Li Jinjun, attended the banquet, which had a “warm and lively atmosphere”, KCNA said.

Song responded to Kim’s hospitality by pledging to make “a fresh contribution to promoting the prolonged and stable development of China-North Korean relations.

The visit to North Korea is Song’s second in five months, and comes amid a resumption of high-level exchanges designed to repair strained ties over Pyongyang’s nuclear brinkmanship, and just weeks ahead of Kim’s planned meetings with his US and South Korean counterparts.

When the diplomat last visited the reclusive state, in November, after China’s 19th party congress, he did not meet Kim, which was widely seen as a deliberate snub by Pyongyang in return for Beijing’s endorsement of Washington-led international economic sanctions.

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Jeong Se-hyun, a former unification minister of South Korea, said Song’s visit might have helped to strengthen Beijing’s claims to a seat at the table in any negotiations of a formal peace treaty on the Korean peninsula. The 1950-53 Korean war ended in an armistice rather than a formal peace deal.

“Being overlooked on Korean peninsula issues is one of Beijing’s foremost fears,” he said. “Song may have emphasised Beijing’s commitment to the upcoming peninsula talks.”

In the meantime, Kim’s meeting with Song sent a strong message to Washington and Seoul that Pyongyang still has a powerful ally, despite US President Donald Trump’s repeated threats of military strikes, .

“North Korea is using a hedging strategy,” said Boo Seung-chan, a research fellow at the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies in Seoul.

“By meeting Song and patching over relations with China, he is trying to build a safety net for his regime.”

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KCNA also issued a rare separate report on Kim’s wife, Ri Sol-ju, who attended a performance by the Chinese art troupe earlier on Saturday.

“First lady Ri Sol-ju enjoyed the ballet choreodrama Giselle by the National Ballet of China,” the report said, adding that she held “friendly talks” with the guests ahead of the performance. Kim did not attend the show.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse