The letters between Xi Jinping (left) and Kim Jong Un were shorter and colder than the previous exchange in July last year
The letters between Xi Jinping (left) and Kim Jong Un were shorter and colder than the previous exchange in July last year © Getty/AP

Xi Jinping has told Kim Jong Un he wants to improve the relationship between China and North Korea, as the two leaders exchanged messages for the first time in more than a year and a week before US president Donald Trump arrives in China.

While Beijing has moved in recent months to clamp down on its Communist neighbour after North Korea tested a series of missiles and its biggest nuclear device to date, the US president is expected next week to press his Chinese counterpart for even tougher measures, including an oil embargo.

The letters between the Asian nations’ leaders were shorter and colder than the previous exchange in July last year, suggesting bilateral tensions remain. But while they were dry and routine, the fact they were sent at all signals that relations have not completely broken down.

North Korea’s state news agency KCNA on Thursday publicised Mr Xi’s message to Mr Kim, a response to a message last week from the North Korean leader congratulating the Chinese president on the conclusion of the 19th Communist party congress.

“I wish that under the new situation the Chinese side would make efforts with the DPRK side to promote the relations between the two [Communist] parties and the two countries to sustainable soundness and stable development,” KCNA quoted Mr Xi as saying. The agency said he addressed Mr Kim as “Comrade Chairman”.

Last week Mr Kim had expressed “sincere congratulations” and his belief that the bilateral relationship would develop “according to the interests of the people of the two countries”.

While the wording was cordial, a close reading by analysts suggested an already frosty relationship had deteriorated. Experts noted that letters last July were longer and warmer in tone. This time there was also a full week’s delay between North Korea’s message and Beijing’s response, much longer than last year when the interval was just one day.

Zhao Tong, an expert on security affairs on the Korean peninsula at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing, said these minor details were important for two countries where protocol was so carefully choreographed.

He said it was significant, for instance, that Kim had suggested relations would develop according to the “will” of the two peoples, rather than the “interests” — “interests is colder” he said. 

“The precise words, the length, the tone and the length of time in the response, all of these carry meaning,” he said.

One Asian diplomat said: “It may just look like a routine letter, but these go through many drafts.”

Any effort to contain North Korea requires the participation of China, which accounts for a huge percentage of North Korea’s foreign trade, as well as critical energy supplies.

Mr Xi’s response to Mr Kim comes the same week that China and US ally South Korea agreed to reset their relationship after a year-long spat over Seoul’s decision to host an American missile shield.

Additional reporting by Sherry Fei Ju

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