BEIJING — China’s leader, Xi Jinping, arrived in North Korea’s capital on Thursday to a 21-gun salute at the airport, the release of thousands of balloons and waving crowds lining the streets, as his car wound its way to the mausoleum where the North’s founder lies.
The elaborate ceremonial welcome for Mr. Xi, making his first visit to the North since taking power seven years ago, seemed designed as an upbeat makeover of what has been a dour relationship between him and the North’s young leader, Kim Jong-un.
The two are engaged in separate disputes with President Trump — one over trade, the other over the North’s nuclear weapons. American officials have said they expect Mr. Xi to try to make headway with Mr. Kim on the nuclear issue, then use that as leverage with Mr. Trump on trade next week, when the two are expected to meet in Japan.
Such expectations grew on Wednesday when a rare article by Mr. Xi appeared in the North Korean ruling party’s official newspaper, Rodong Sinmun. He wrote that China was willing to draw up a “grand plan” with the North that would “realize permanent peace” on the Korean Peninsula.
Mr. Xi’s first stop after arriving was the mausoleum in Pyongyang, the capital, where Mr. Kim’s grandfather Kim Il-sung, the North’s founding president, is buried along with his son and successor, Kim Jong-il.
Chinese state media reported on Thursday afternoon that Mr. Xi and Kim Jong-un were meeting, offering no details.
For his part, Mr. Kim was expected to seek Mr. Xi’s help in easing international sanctions over his country’s nuclear weapons program. China has long been North Korea’s sole major ally, but Mr. Xi sided with the Trump administration’s push for tougher sanctions after repeated tests of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles by the North.
The North has conducted no such tests since late 2017, and last June, Mr. Kim made a vague commitment to denuclearization in a broadly worded agreement with Mr. Trump. But follow-up diplomacy aimed at fleshing out that agreement has failed, and a second meeting in Vietnam between the two leaders in February ended in collapse after Mr. Trump rejected Mr. Kim’s demands for sanctions relief.
In his Wednesday article, Mr. Xi said the North was headed in the “correct direction” and suggested that it deserved some easing of the crippling sanctions.
“China wants to use the visit to encourage Kim Jong-un to continue to freeze his missile tests,” said Wu Xinbo, director of the American studies program at Fudan University in Shanghai. “We should give him some incentives to stay on the right track.”
The trip is the first by a Chinese leader to North Korea in 14 years. In the past year, Mr. Xi and Mr. Kim have met four times in China. But the 66-year-old Chinese leader, who has shown disdain for Mr. Kim, 35, had been reluctant to go to North Korea until now.
He had been expected to visit sometime this year, but the trip was apparently arranged fairly quickly so the Chinese leader could use it as leverage with Mr. Trump next week.
The timing of the two-day visit skirts the anniversary on Tuesday of the North’s invasion of South Korea in 1950, which started the Korean War. China fought alongside the North against the United States and South Korea during that three-year conflict, losing hundreds of thousands of soldiers.
Since then, the two Communist countries have maintained an alliance marked by long periods of tension.
Two years ago, as Mr. Kim fired a series of intercontinental ballistic missiles and China urged caution, the North hurled invective at Beijing, saying its state-run media was making “absurd and reckless remarks” that made the situation worse.
Mr. Xi’s decision to go to Pyongyang did not signal a new warmth, said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea scholar. Rather, Mr. Xi — in a corner over his stalemate in trade talks with the Trump administration — could see the possibility of playing the middle man between Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump, he said.
The contents of Mr. Xi’s “grand plan” are not clear, Mr. Lankov said. But as a first step, he said, Mr. Xi will probably try to forge a compromise that would allow Mr. Trump to step back from his demand that Mr. Kim surrender his nuclear arsenal.
“He would want Trump to see a compromise as a first step on the road to denuclearization,” Mr. Lankov said.
Offering economic help to Mr. Kim would not be difficult for Mr. Xi, whose country accounts for much of North Korea’s trade. But it would stop short of what the North Korean leader wants, which is for China to use its power at the United Nations to reverse the sanctions that are pummeling his country’s economy.
China is not prepared to do that, Mr. Lankov said. Instead, he said, Mr. Xi is likely to encourage Chinese businessmen, particularly those along the border, to increase trade with the North off the books.
He also said Mr. Xi was likely to offer humanitarian assistance, in the form of grain shipments, to help stave off what the World Food Program recently called serious food shortages in the North Korean countryside.