Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Pyongyang for his state visit to North Korea on Thursday (June 20), Chinese state media reported.
He arrived in Pyongyang at 11.40am local time, according to a tweet from People’s Daily.
Mr Xi, who will be in North Korea for two days, is the first Chinese leader to visit the reclusive country in 14 years after relations between the Cold War era allies deteriorated over Pyongyang’s nuclear provocations and Beijing’s subsequent backing of United Nations sanctions.
Mr Xi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have been working to repair ties, with Mr Kim visiting his older comrade four times in China in the past year and Beijing calling for sanctions to be relaxed.
Mr Xi flew to North Korea on Thursday with his wife Peng Liyuan, Foreign Minister Wang Yi and other officials, according to state broadcaster CCTV.
Chinese flags were raised in key locations and along roads throughout Pyongyang, alternating with North Korean emblems.
The Korean peninsula and North Korea’s denuclearisation progress are expected to figure large during Mr Xi’s state visit, Chinese experts have said.
Though Beijing has emphasised the trip is to mark the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and North Korea and to look at ways for the close neighbours to deepen ties, the surprise visit comes less than a fortnight before Mr Xi’s planned meeting with United States President Donald Trump at the Group of 20 summit in Osaka.
Denuclearisation talks between the US and North Korea have stalled since both sides failed to reach a deal at their leaders’ summit talks in Hanoi in February.
The trip is also a chance for China to showcase its influence in the region.
“For North Korea, the coming meeting will serve to show the US that China has its back and to send a message to Washington it should stop its maximum pressure posture,” said Professor Lim Eul-chul of North Korean studies at Kyungnam University.
Negotiations between Mr Trump and Mr Kim soured after their second summit in February broke up without a deal, failing to agree on what Pyongyang would be willing to give up in exchange for sanctions relief.
Beijing’s own trade negotiations with Washington hit a wall last month.
Mr Xi could come back from Pyongyang with some leverage when he meets Mr Trump at the G-20 summit in Japan next week.
In a rare opinion piece published in North Korea’s official newspaper on Wednesday, Mr Xi hailed the “irreplaceable” friendship of the neighbouring nations and offered a “grand plan” to bring permanent stability to East Asia.
He also vowed that Beijing would play an active role in “strengthening communication and coordination with North Korea and other relevant parties” to push forward negotiations on the Korean peninsula.
Beijing had fretted over being sidelined after the North Korean leader agreed to meet Mr Trump last year, with the US leader going as far as declaring he had fallen “in love” with Mr Kim.
The editorial was a not-so-subtle reminder that Beijing remains Pyongyang’s closest ally.