President Xi Jinping paid his first visit to China’s largest ethnic Korean community, a trip significant because of a place he hasn’t yet ventured: North Korea.
Xi’s swing through the Yanbian region on the North Korean border Thursday included stops at a home, a museum, a rice farm and a pharmaceutical company, the official Xinhua News Agency said Friday. While the visit produced no immediate revelations about Sino-North Korean ties, it called attention to the strained state of their alliance amid Kim Jong Un’s nuclear weapons expansion.
Since taking power in November 2012, Xi hasn’t met Kim and reaffirmed their countries’ decades-long bond. Instead, Xi visited South Korea last year, an unprecedented move.
“The overdue trip on one hand shows frustration by Beijing, and on the other hand effectively shows China hasn’t given up on North Korea and still views the bilateral relationship as strategically important,” said Shen Shishun, a senior researcher at the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing. “It takes two to tango. North Korea needs to conduct itself in line with international practice if it wants to keep China as its ally.”
The relationship has been tested by Kim’s nuclear weapons program, with North Korea successfully detonating three nuclear devices since 2006 in defiance of United Nations sanctions. China, South Korea and the U.S. have been unable to convince Kim to return to six-party talks, which collapsed in 2009 after the UN condemned a long-range rocket launch by North Korea.
Meanwhile, a series of killings in Yanbian blamed on deserting North Korean soldiers have led China to step up security along the 1,400-kilometer (880-mile) border. China lodged a complaint after a soldier crossed the frontier and murdered four residents in Nanping in December. Three more Chinese villagers were stabbed to death in April, the Beijing News reported, the third known incident since September.
Surveillance cameras have been installed along parts of the frontier and civilians are being trained to use weapons to help soldiers patrol border villages, China’s Ministry of National Defense said in January.
The president was following through on a March promise to visit an area that hosts China’s largest Korean population, telling the local governor he “always wanted to check out Yanbian,” Xinhua said Friday. Yanbian, which also borders Russia, is home to about 780,000 ethnic Koreans.