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China is sending its highest-level delegation to North Korea since 2019 to kick off a ‘friendship year’

China’s highest-level visit to North Korea in nearly five years is set to get underway Thursday, as Pyongyang seeks to strengthen relations with both Beijing and Moscow amid growing coordination between its neighbors and the United States.

Zhao Leji, China’s third-highest ranked official, will lead a delegation for a “goodwill visit” to the country to kickstart a “friendship year” marking 75 years of diplomatic ties, Beijing announced Tuesday.

The three-day visit, at North Korea’s invitation, shows the “great importance” China attaches to those relations, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said. North Korea’s state media agency KCNA also announced the visit.

It also affords a top Chinese official the opportunity to hear directly from North Korea’s intensely secretive and isolated government while on the ground, analysts say.

Zhao is the highest-ranking Chinese visitor to the country since a state visit from Chinese leader Xi Jinping in 2019. Zhao leads China’s rubber-stamp national legislature and is a member of its powerful seven-man Politburo Standing Committee.

The trip comes as both countries are wary of what they see as an increasingly hostile region – in particular growing security coordination between the US and its allies Japan and South Korea, which in turn seek to counter aggression from Beijing and Pyongyang.

The delegation will also arrive amid heightened global concern about North Korea, which has in recent months ramped up its bellicose rhetoric and continued its weapons testing. Pyongyang has also forged closer ties with Moscow, and begun supplying arms used in its war in Ukraine, the US and its allies say.

Those geopolitical fault lines are underscored as the Chinese delegation’s visit coincides with a raft of Asia-focused diplomacy in Washington this week.

US President Joe Biden is hosting a trilateral summit with the Philippines and Japan Thursday, a day after a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida where they pledged to advance coordination around countering challenges from China and North Korea.

In an interview with CNN ahead of that meeting, Kishida referred to China and North Korea’s close ties with Russia and urged them to “maintain a free and open international order based on the rule of law.”

Goodwill mission

As the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s No. 3 official below Xi and Premier Li Qiang, Zhao’s “goodwill” mission carries more weight than a visit from a government-level minister.

The visit is not expected to usher in diplomatic developments but will be an opportunity for China to reinforce its own deep and complex ties with North Korea – and convey to the US and the region that it has leverage there.

“(At a time) when the United States is trying to work more closely with Japan and South Korea, China wants to signal its own influence,” said Liu Dongshu, an assistant professor at Hong Kong’s City University.

The trip could also be an important opportunity for the upper echelons of China’s political establishment to better understand the circumstances in North Korea today.

Only handful of Chinese officials have visited the country since it eased pandemic controls last year – a period during which Pyongyang has ramped up rhetoric around its nuclear weapons development and unveiled a major policy shift away from seeking reunification with South Korea.

“China probably needs to understand what’s happening and what’s the real intention of the North Korean leader … given that (North Korea) just recovered from Covid and shifted its policies … apart from routine communication, China needs to get more information,” Liu said.

For North Korea, the visit provides an opportunity to tighten its ties with its most important international partner, as it seeks to bolster itself against expanding drills and security cooperation between the US and South Korea, which Kim sees as a threat to his regime.

Balance of power

China has long walked a thin line in its relations with North Korea.

It is a critical economic lifeline for a North Korea crippled by international sanctions over its illegal weapons testing. The two also have close historical and ideological ties and fought together during the Korean War of the 1950s.

Today, Beijing stands to benefit when US attention is drawn away from itself and toward Pyongyang’s provocative rhetoric and weapons testing. But it also has a strong interest in ensuring that Kim’s posturing doesn’t spark a potentially devastating conflict in the region – or draw more US forces there.

“When China’s regional geopolitical situation (has) deteriorated, you will see China became a lot more supportive or accommodating to North Korea,” said Li Mingjiang, an associate professor of international relations at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

“When China feels the geopolitical pressures from the US and from regional states in Asia-Pacific becoming less, you will see stronger desire on the part of Beijing to put pressure on North Korea’s nuclear policy, missile policy,” he said.

China is also likely paying close attention to the enhanced cooperation between North Korea and Russia, where Kim made a visit last year to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Beijing, which has expanded economic, diplomatic and security ties with Russia following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, has declined to comment on any transfer of arms transfer from North Korea to Russia, calling their cooperation a “matter between those two sovereign states.”

It also abstained from a United Nations Security Council vote last month to extend monitoring North Korea’s violations of UN sanctions. The measure was vetoed by Russia.

But while the three authoritarian countries share security concerns and opposition to the American network of alliances, Beijing is also wary of any optics that it’s forming an axis with Russia and North Korea, according to Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Washington-based Stimson Center think tank.

“China doesn’t want to return to an iron triangle with North Korea and Russia,” and also may not want to see Pyongyang’s relations with Moscow dilute its own influence, she said.

“But China plays a critical and irreplaceable role in both economies and the Russia-(North Korea) rapprochement has not threatened or damaged China’s interests yet.”