Ri met with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday for talks, during which Xi reaffirmed his country’s strong relations with Pyongyang, North Korea’s state-run media reported Sunday.
Xi was quoted as saying by North Korea’s state-run media that he regards Pyongyang-Beijing ties as “highly important” and that it is “the unyielding policy principle” of the Chinese government and communist party to further develop relations.
Ri earlier discussed bilateral ties with top Vietnamese officials during his trip to the Southeast Asian country, according to the North’s state media.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un reportedly cited Vietnam’s economic success several times during his meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Ri also met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad last week and discussed ways to expand relations between the two countries, according to the Syrian presidential office. Syria and North Korea are suspected of cooperating on chemical weapons, though they deny the accusations.
Ri’s extensive overseas travels at a time when talks between Washington and Pyongyang aimed at dismantling the North’s nuclear weapons program have stalled are widely seen as the isolated country’s efforts to increase its leverage.
The highlight of Ri’s travels outside the North was his trip to Beijing late last week, less than a week after a summit between US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart.
The US and China agreed hold off on imposing new tariffs for 90 days, a temporary truce in intensifying trade conflicts between the world’s two-largest economies.
“And North Korea, which we didn’t get into, we’ve agreed that we will work very strongly on North Korea,” Trump said onboard Air Force One on his return home from the G-20 meeting and his summit with Xi, adding Xi agreed to work with Trump “100 percent” on North Korea.
North Korea sent Ri to China to check on whether their alliance remains unchanged, said Hong Min, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification.
“North Korea might be worried about a possible change in China’s stance -- whether China will continue to forge a favorable relationship with North Korea amid pressure from the US,” Hong said.
“North Korea is continuing its talks with the US, but it seems desperate amid a deadlock and a lack of signs of any sanctions relief,” he said. “North Korea probably wanted to secure support for sanctions relief and wanted to send a message to the US through the diplomatic activities.”
Denuclearization talks between the US and North Korea have been in a stalemate since the Kim-Trump summit in June.
The US demands the North take more irreversible denuclearization steps -- such as disclosing an inventory of its nuclear weapons program -- while North Korea wants the US to reciprocate all the measures it has already taken, such as the dismantling of its nuclear testing facility.
While Washington and Beijing are locking horns over trade, they both share the goal of North Korea’s denuclearization.
China, North Korea’s most important ally and biggest trading partner, has agreed to impose economic sanctions against the reclusive country to cut off funds for the North’s nuclear and missile developments.
But China takes North Korea’s side on how to achieve denuclearization -- an action-for-action approach -- as part of efforts to keep the North -- a strategic buffer to prevent American troops in the South from edging closer to its border -- on its side.
Trump has often placed the blame on China for a lack of progress on the North’s denuclearization, linking the impasse with US trade tensions with China.
“The worst scenario for North Korea is that China and the US stand united against North Korea by extending sanctions on the country,” said Kim Heung-kyu, director of the China Policy Institute and professor at Ajou University in South Korea.
“For now, China doesn’t want to be seen as taking North Korea’s side or trying to lift sanctions for it. Despite its strategic competition with the US, China seeks to promote the North Korea issue as a symbol of its cooperation with the US,” he said. “So China wouldn’t want to give an excuse to the US to pressure China at the moment.”
Xi told North Korea’s foreign minister on Friday that he hoped North Korea and the US could “meet each other halfway” and “address each other’s reasonable concerns” for positive progress on denuclearization talks, China’s Foreign Ministry said.
Ri said his country remains committed to “realizing denuclearization and safeguarding the peace and stability of the (Korean) peninsula” at Friday’s meeting with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, according to the ministry.
Still, North Korea and China need each other in countering the US amid such complicated calculations among the major powers, another expert said.
“As they have done this year, North Korea and China continue to seek to stand united in negotiations for the North’s denuclearization,” Chung Jae-hung, a research fellow at the Sejong Institute, said.
While the traditionally close ties between China and North Korea have frayed somewhat, Xi hosted Kim for three summits in China this year, both before and after his Singapore meeting with Trump.
“As the US steps up pressure on China, China is improving its ties with North Korea to counter the US,” he said. “I think North Korea also sees an improvement in its relations with China could help it gain an upper hand in negotiations with the US.”