A recent unofficial visit to China by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in which he met with President Xi Jinping, was a diplomatic coup for the isolated Stalinist state ahead of a planned meeting between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump, Chinese experts told RFA.
Chinese state news agency Xinhua devoted thousands of words to the meeting between the two heads of state, while reporting it as an "unofficial" visit.
"Xi Jinping held talks with Kim Jong Un at the Great Hall of the People ... [President Xi] and his wife Peng Liyuan held a welcome banquet for Chairman Kim Jong Un and his wife Ri Sol Ju, and they jointly watched a cultural performance," Xinhua reported.
The events were also attended by premier Li Keqiang, Xi's right-hand man Wang Qishan and Politburo standing committee member Wang Huning, it said.
Kim told Xi that he had come to offer "a timely, face-to-face briefing" on events on the Korean Peninsula, which he said were "moving forward rapidly and seeing many major changes," Xinhua reported.
Xi told Kim that his visit to China came "at a special time and carries major significance," placing great importance on the bilateral relationship, the agency said.
He said the special relationship between the two long-time allies was "the only correct choice, and it should not and will not change temporarily as a result of a single incident," without elaborating.
Xi said he would be willing to keep up the relationship by exchanging visits, special envoys, and letters, and deploy the "traditional magic weapon of strategic communication."
"I hope to have the opportunity to meet with the Comrade General Secretary often in the future," Kim reportedly replied, saying he hoped to take bilateral ties "to a new level."
A diplomatic victory
A political commentator with expertise on Beijing-Pyongyang ties said the ruling Chinese Communist Party rarely welcomes North Korean leaders with such public fanfare.
"China actually invited him over, which is a diplomatic victory [for North Korea]," the analyst, who gave only his surname Xiao, told RFA.
He compared the visit to that of Kim's father Kim Jong Il to China in May 2011, who also used a special train to travel to Beijing via Dandong.
During that visit, he met with then-President Hu Jintao, premier Wen Jiabao, and Xi, who was vice president at the time, Xiao said.
"When Kim's father used to visit China, it was never reported in such a way," he said. "Kim Jong Il went to a few places in China, including Shenzhen and the northeast, but there was never this much ceremony involved," he said. "It was never accorded such a high-level protocol."
Beijing-based political commentator Zha Jianguo said talks between Xi and Kim would likely have revolved around the question of North Korea's nuclear weapons program and other strategic issues.
"The core issue would be the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, while two strategic issues might be military disarmament and strategic talks about the three main sides that are involved," Zha said.
"The three sides are North Korea, with the U.S. and Japan on one side and China and Russia on the other," he said. "China and Russia appear to take a neutral stance, but in fact they are slightly more on the side of North Korea."
Looking for support
Zha said North Korea is highly unlikely to respond to U.S. demands that it end its nuclear weapons program.
"If Kim Jong Un is visiting China, it probably means that he is looking for support from Beijing," Zha said. "Kim is under huge pressure, now that he has extended this olive branch of talks [with U.S. president Donald Trump]."
"He has two goals: one is to put pressure on the alliance between the U.S. and South Korea, and the other is to play for time until his nuclear missiles have been fully developed," Zha said. "I think he came to China to try to accomplish those goals."
Hong Kong-based North Korea expert Steve Chung said Pyongyang now needs Beijing's support more than ever.
"Right now there isn't a single country that takes the same view as Pyongyang, and is willing to protect its interests," Chung said.
"Kim Jong Un's visit to China will at the very least ensure that he has heard Beijing's opinion, and wins their tacit support [ahead of his meeting with Trump.]"
'A pretty farce'
But a Guizhou-based political analyst surnamed Zhao said the meeting between Xi and Kim was largely a political performance, and might not mean much in terms of substance.
"It was nothing but a petty farce," Zhao said. "The wolf will walk 1,000 miles to eat meat, while a dog will go 1,000 miles to eat dung."
"They are putting on a show for the outside world, but both parties think they embody the purest form of socialism and communism. Really we're looking at two leaders who have been isolated meeting together," he said.
"The whole world knows what they're really all about."
President Trump has agreed to meet with Kim Jong Un in what would mark the first summit between the two countries’ heads of state since the end of the Korean War nearly 65 years ago.
The decision to hold talks with Kim was announced by the White House on March 9, after South Korean officials briefed Trump on their recent visit to Pyongyang, where the North Korean leader expressed a willingness to discuss nuclear disarmament with the U.S. and said he would suspend all nuclear and missile tests during the dialogue.
Trump said he would meet Kim by May, "to achieve permanent denuclearization" of the Korean Peninsula. A time and place for the talks have yet to be determined, however.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.