Chinese President Xi Jinping offered North Korean leader Kim Jong-un firm backing in deadlocked nuclear talks with the United States (US) and reasserted Beijing's key role in the wider process, according to the two allies' state media Thursday.
Kim visited Beijing by train this week for two days of talks with Xi seen as a strategy session ahead of a second summit between the North Korean leader and US President Donald Trump.
At their first meeting in Singapore in June, Kim and Trump signed a vaguely worded document with Kim pledging to work towards the "denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula".
But progress has since stalled with Pyongyang and Washington disagreeing over what that means.
North Korea wants relief from the multiple sets of sanctions imposed on it over its nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programmes, while the US wants them to remain in place until it gives up its arms – something Pyongyang has made no public promise to do.
China also wants the sanctions relaxed and Xi said it "hopes that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the US will meet each other halfway" according to China's state news agency Xinhua.
He "spoke highly of the positive measures taken by the DPRK side", it added.
North Korea has carried out six nuclear blasts and launched missiles capable of reaching the whole of the US, but has carried out no such tests for more than a year and blew up the entrances to a nuclear testing ground it said it no longer needed.
Kim has previously said his country has completed the development of its nuclear arsenal and Pyongyang has rejected demands for what it calls its "unilateral" disarmament as "gangster-like".
China is the North's sole major ally, main diplomatic backer and a key trade partner, whose forces were instrumental in fighting for it during the 1950-53 Korean War.
Relations between China and North Korea had deteriorated in recent years over Pyongyang's nuclear activities, but ties appear to have warmed, with Kim meeting Xi three times last year to pay his respects and keep him informed about developments.
Kim "raised concern about the impasse created in the process of improving US-DPRK ties and in denuclearisation talks", Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said.
It said the Chinese leader had issued a ringing endorsement of the North's position.
"Xi Jinping said that the legitimate issues raised by the DPRK are rightful demands and that he fully agrees that the DPRK's reasonable interests should be justly resolved," it said.
Each of the previous meetings between Kim and Xi have come shortly before or after summits the North Korean leader has held with either Trump or the South's President Moon Jae-in.
Xi re-asserted China's importance in the diplomatic process surrounding the Korean peninsula, Xinhua said, quoting him as saying that Beijing stands ready to "play a positive and constructive role in maintaining peace and stability and realising denuclearisation on the peninsula and lasting peace and stability in the region".
There was a "rare historic opportunity" for a political settlement on the peninsula, he added, and China "supports the DPRK and the US holding summits and achieving results".
Trump said Sunday that the US and North Korea were negotiating the location of their next summit.
In a New Year speech, Kim warned that Pyongyang may change its approach to nuclear talks if Washington persists with sanctions.
Kim's visit coincided with trade talks between Chinese and US officials in Beijing. Analysts say China could use the North Korean issue as a bargaining chip in the negotiations, but Beijing's foreign ministry rejected any link between Kim’s trip and the talks.
Xi greeted Kim at Beijing's ornate Great Hall of the People on Tuesday – believed to be the North Korean leader's birthday.
Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan hosted a welcome banquet for Kim and his wife Ri Sol Ju and they watched an art performance together, according to Xinhua.
Kim visited a pharmaceutical plant that makes traditional Chinese medicine on Wednesday and met Xi again for lunch at a hotel before heading back to North Korea by train. – AFP