Chinese leader Xi Jinping will not make his inaugural visit as president to Pyongyang to attend ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of North Korea’s founding, the official Xinhua News Agency said Tuesday.
Instead, China’s No. 3-ranked official, Li Zhanshu, will head a delegation to visit the nuclear-armed North from Saturday as a special representative of Xi, Xinhua quoted the ruling Communist Party’s International Department as saying.
The North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency also confirmed the visit in a short dispatch published later Tuesday.
The news threw cold water on speculation that Xi would be the first Chinese president in 13 years to visit its neighbor and ally.
Li, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee and chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, was invited by the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea and the North Korean government, according to Xinhua.
Last month, Singapore’s The Straits Times newspaper had reported that Xi was poised to be the first Chinese leader to visit since his predecessor, Hu Jintao, made the journey in 2005.
North Korea will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the country, formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, on Sept. 9.
In October 2015, North Korea and China played up their ties as Beijing sent a top official, Liu Yunshan, a member of the Standing Committee, to mark the 70th anniversary of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party.
In Pyongyang, Liu met North Korea leader Kim Jong Un and the two watched a massive military parade that featured an array of troops and weaponry pass through the capital’s main square.
While that visit failed to halt the North’s nuclear weapons drive, Saturday’s trip will come amid Pyongyang’s increasingly warmer ties with its main benefactor.
Kim has already visited China three times this year, traveling twice to Beijing and once to the eastern port city of Dalian. Kim and Xi met during all three visits.
Relations had soured in recent years after a spate of nuclear and missile tests by Kim, with China backing some of the harshest United Nations’ sanctions to date on its nuclear-armed neighbor. But Beijing has also continued in its role as Pyongyang’s top economic patron.
The first two meetings between Xi and Kim, in March and May, respectively, were held in the run-up to June’s historic summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore
The third came after the talks, and was widely seen as a move by Kim to brief Xi on the results of the Singapore meeting, which included a vaguely worded 1½-page joint statement in which Kim agreed to “work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” and Trump committed to “provide security guarantees.”
Nuclear talks between the U.S. and North Korea have hit a wall in recent weeks, with neither side appearing willing to make concessions.
Observers said the decision by Xi not to travel to Pyongyang could indicate that Beijing expected further actions from Kim. With China’s continued support of the tough economic sanctions, it may be looking for real signs of progress toward denuclearization, they have said.