North Korean leader Kim Jong Un arrived in Beijing on Tuesday, where he will likely brief Chinese President Xi Jinping on his summit with US President Donald Trump on June 12.
At the meeting US and South Korea agreed to suspend a major joint military exercise.
This is Kim’s third trip to China this year, coming a week after he met Trump in Singapore for historic talks.
Trump agreed to work with Kim toward complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, committed to provide the North’s regime with security guarantees and pledged to end “war games”, which Pyongyang and Beijing have long seen as provocative.
South Korea and the Pentagon announced they would halt the annual Freedom Guardian military drill scheduled for August.
In an unusual move, Chinese state media announced Kim’s visit and said he would stay for two days. Previously China would only confirm Kim had visited after he had left the country.
No other details were provided.
A Kim trip to China to discuss his summit with Trump had been widely anticipated in diplomatic circles.
China is North Korea’s most important diplomatic and economic backer but has been angered by Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests.
Police tightened security along Beijing’s main Changan Avenue, which leads to the Great Hall of the People where Chinese leaders normally meet visiting heads of state, and also outside the Diaoyutai State Guest House, where Kim stayed with his wife during his March visit to Beijing.
Outside the east gate of the Great Hall, where foreign leaders are officially welcomed, authorities had erected a screen running the full length of the road, cutting off the view behind it.
South Korea’s foreign ministry spokesman said the governments of South Korea and China shared the same strategic goal of completely denuclearizing the Korean peninsula.
“Our government hopes China will play a constructive role in resolving this problem,” spokesman Noh Kyu-deok told a regular briefing.
“We hope Chairman Kim Jong Un’s visit will contribute to that.”
China has welcomed the warming of ties between Washington and Pyongyang, and offered to help.
Beijing has been particularly pleased by Trump’s announcement to suspend military drills, which China has long pushed for under its “dual suspension” proposal, whereby North Korea stops weapons tests and the US and South Korea stop military drills, so both sides can sit down for talks.
“South Korea and the U. S. have agreed to suspend all planning activities regarding the Freedom Guardian military drill scheduled for August,” according to a South Korean defence ministry statement.
A Pentagon statement confirmed the suspension, adding there would be a meeting between the secretaries of defense and state as well as Trump’s national security adviser on the issue on Thursday.
In 2017, 17,500 American and more than 50,000 South Korean troops participated in the Ulchi Freedom Guardian drills, though the exercise is mostly focused on computerised simulations rather than live field exercises that use weapons, tanks or aircraft.
The US-South Korean exercise calendar hits a high point every spring with the Foal Eagle and Max Thunder drills, which both wrapped up last month.
The decision to halt military exercises in South Korea has bewildered many current and former US defense officials, who only learned about it when Trump made his remarks after the Singapore meeting.
Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, said there would be no changes to joint drill plans between the US and Japan, both of which also engage in regular deterrence exercises against North Korea.