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China's Xi Jinping arrives in North Korea on a visit 'big on symbolism'

Key Points
  • China's President Xi Jinping arrived in Pyongyang on Thursday morning for a state visit to North Korea — the first by a Chinese state leader in 14 years.
  • The visit will be "big on symbolism and big on substance," said John Park, director of the Korea Project at Harvard Kennedy School.
  • It comes just days before Xi is set to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump at the G-20 summit, as trade tensions between the two countries persist.
Chinese president Xi Jinping holds talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Dalian on May 7-8 2018.
Ju Peng | Xinhua | Getty Images

China's President Xi Jinping arrived in Pyongyang on Thursday morning for a state visit to North Korea — the first by a Chinese state leader in 14 years. Experts say the move is both symbolic and significant.

The visit — which comes days before Xi is set to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump at the G-20 summit —  will be "big on symbolism and big on substance," said John Park, director of the Korea Project at Harvard Kennedy School.

Washington and Beijing are currently locked in a protracted trade war that started last year and investors are hoping for some progress during the G-20 meeting.

Xi's visit to Pyongyang also comes as nuclear talks between the U.S. and North Korea have reached a stalemate, after the leaders from both countries walked away from the negotiating table during a February summit in Hanoi.

Tom Rafferty from the Economist Intelligence Unit told CNBC on a phone interview that the visit shows that both China and North Korea "are engaged in a bit of messaging to the U.S."

Xi's trip is partly an effort to remind Trump of the key role that China plays on the North Korean nuclear issue.
Michael Hirson
Eurasia Group

Nonetheless, it is important to note the significance of having such a high-level Chinese state-visit, Rafferty said, adding that it doesn't mean there are no problems between the neighboring countries. The meeting between Xi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is more out of "convenience" and "pragmatism" than true comradeship, he said.

Xi's entourage includes high-level diplomats such as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and head of the state economic planner, He Lifeng, according to Chinese state media Xinhua.

North Korea dependency

"The economic dimension is crucial and in many respects — the 1%, the elites in North Korea ... (have) already migrated into the Chinese market place," Park told CNBC on Thursday.

He highlighted that the meeting between the two leaders is a "further elevation" and "rebuilding of this party-to-party dynamic."

About 90% of North Korea's external trade is with China, and that includes the import of food and energy supplies.

Although China has been staying within the the guidelines of the United Nations sanctions on North Korea, Park said that an "easing" of sanctions by Beijing toward Pyongyang can be expected. Fundamentally, he said, China is a "lifeline for Pyongyang."

US-China trade

"North Korea is an issue of importance to both sides but I don't think will play a major role on trade," Michael Hirson, China and Northeast Asia practice head at Eurasia Group, told CNBC in an email on Wednesday.

"Xi's trip is partly an effort to remind Trump of the key role that China plays on the North Korean nuclear issue," he said.

However, "Trump is not so panicked over the situation in North Korea that he will feel an urgent need to pull punches on trade just to seek Beijing's cooperation," he added.

Harvard's Park emphasized that this could also be an opportunity for both sides.

"There is a saying in international relations, don't let a good crisis go to waste," said Park.

Analysts and the media have speculated that Beijing could use its relationship with Pyongyang as a leverage against Trump, but Park said he thinks that "ultimately what China is seeking to preserve" is a "dual freeze."

He explained that Beijing will want North Korea to stop testing nuclear missile trials; while also hope the United States and South Korea will stop conducting large scale military exercises on the peninsula.

Both the United States and China are trying to gain more leverage, Sian Fenner from Oxford Economists told CNBC's Street Signs on Thursday.

She pointed out that China's threat to withhold rare earth metals and its warning to citizens against traveling to the U.S. were ways to tell Washington: "Look, we got more things that we can use" in this trade war.

Fenner said that though North Korean could be used by China as leverage in the trade talks with Washington, the meeting between Xi and Kim is more about China's diplomatic role in the region.

"I don't think that's going to change anything economically," she said.

– CNBC's Evelyn Cheng contributed to this report.