- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Chinese President Xi Jinping will skip North Korea’s highly-touted 70th-anniversary celebrations this week, a decision that has analysts wondering whether a rift may be emerging between the two allies.

Without further comment, North Korea’s state media reported Tuesday that the Chinese delegation will be headed by Li Zhanshu, a high-level member of the ruling Communist Party in Beijing and that he will be on hand for the anniversary celebrations beginning Saturday.

Speculation has swirled in recent days over whether Mr. Xi would accept an invitation from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and make the trip himself to attend.

In the protocol-obsessed world of Asian diplomacy, analysts said Mr. Kim was practically “owed” a visit from Mr. Xi after having made three trips of his own to China over the past year to discuss the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula and coordinate policy ahead of President Trump’s historic summit with Mr. Kim in Singapore in June. North Korean leaders have rarely traveled abroad in the past.

Mr. Xi’s decision to stay home follows sharp criticism by the Trump administration of China’s role in the push to seek a deal with Mr. Kim.

In a barrage of tweets last week, President Trump accused Beijing of playing a spoiler role behind U.S.-North Korea nuclear talks in a bid to gain leverage in the ongoing trade war with Washington. The president suggested Beijing is so frustrated with the trade negotiations that it’s pressuring North Korea not to cooperate with Washington’s demand that Pyongyang abandon its nuclear weapons.

Chinese officials dismissed the allegation, with a spokeswoman at the foreign ministry in Beijing claiming that Washington is responsible for the lack of progress in North Korea nuclear talks and that China “won’t and cannot take the blame.”

No Chinese head of state has visited North Korea since President Hu Jintao met with Mr. Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, in Pyongyang in 2005, a time when Beijing was urging the North to reform its economy and take part in the so-called “six-party talks” about its nuclear programs.

A visit by Mr. Xi on such a symbolic occasion now would have further underscored the unique historical ties between the two countries’ ruling parties. Mao Zedong sent Chinese troops to aid North Korea after the Korean War began in 1950, setting up a relationship once described as being “as close as lips and teeth.”

A Xi visit would also have been seen as China seeking a bigger role in the talks of the future of the Korean peninsula, which to date have been driven by Mr. Kim, Mr. Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

South and North Korea said Tuesday that a third summit of the two leaders will be held later this month. Mr. Moon and Mr. Trump spoke for 50 minutes by phone Tuesday to discuss the upcoming meeting and announced plans to meet at the U.N. General Assembly gathering in New York later this month.

At least on the surface, the U.S.-North Korean rapprochement is not going so smoothly, with Mr. Trump recently cancelling a planned trip by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and new Korean crisis envoy Stephen Biegun to Pyongyang because of what the president has said was a lack of concrete action by the North to fulfill a pledge to end its nuclear and missile programs.

North Korea’s state media, while careful not to criticize Mr. Trump personally, has complained it is Washington that has failed to act after Singapore, keeping sanctions on the North and refusing to discuss an agreement to effectively end the 1950s Korean war and normalize relations.

Li Zhanshu is chairman of the China’s National People’s Congress and is a close adviser to Mr. Xi, signaling Beijing is far from writing off the North as it pursues detente with Washington.

Analysts say Beijing is determined to ensure its interests are honored, especially its desire to maintain the viability of Mr. Kim’s regime and to keep U.S. and South Korean forces far from its border.

Michael Kovrig, senior adviser for Northeast Asia at the International Crisis Group, told the Associated Press the decision by Mr. Xi not to go was a “strong signal” indicating that “North Korea has a lot to do to get back in China’s good graces.”

⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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