SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un offered a personal welcome to a senior envoy from Beijing, feting him and a visiting Chinese art troupe with a gala dinner.
The report did not say if they discussed the North Korean dictator’s upcoming summits with President Donald Trump and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea to defuse a standoff over the North’s development of nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles.
The warm reception was a reciprocal gesture. Last month, when Kim visited China to meet with President Xi Jinping on his first trip abroad as North Korea’s leader, it was Song who greeted him on the border and accompanied him in his special train to Beijing. That surprise visit by the secretive Kim was apparently an effort to improve ties with China, which had also cooled over the North’s weapons programs, before the summits.
Kim’s friendly welcome also contrasted with the reception that Song received the last time he visited North Korea, as a special envoy of Xi in November. At that time, Kim refused to meet him and launched an intercontinental ballistic missile several days later.
This time, Beijing sent Song and an art troupe to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, to attend an international art festival.
On Saturday, Kim “expressed satisfaction with improving ties between the two parties and nations,” the North Korean news agency said. “He voiced a need to elevate the traditional friendship to a new level of development meeting new demands of the times.”
Ties between China and North Korea had become strained in recent years, as Kim conducted a series of nuclear and missile tests and Beijing voted for increasingly harsh U.N. sanctions designed to squeeze the North to stop. The sanctions banned all major North Korean exports, such as coal, iron ore, textiles and seafood.
Those sanctions have hit the isolated North hard, as China accounts for more than 90 percent of North Korea’s external trade.
Until recently, Kim had refused to enter any talks on ending his nuclear weapons program. Instead, he accelerated his missile and nuclear tests after taking power in 2011, and declared in this year’s New Year’s Day speech that the North had achieved its goal of developing a nuclear deterrent.
Since then, he has suddenly shifted toward dialogue. He agreed to meet with Moon on the inter-Korean border on April 27. Trump has also accepted Kim’s invitation to a summit, agreeing to meet him in May or early June. Kim said he was willing to discuss denuclearizing if certain conditions, such as security guarantees for his regime, are met.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.