As U.S. President Donald Trump has agreed to hold a summit with North Korea, its leader Kim Jong Un may seek to improve relations with China, possibly aiming at easing Chinese sanctions on his country.

China is also eager to get closer with North Korea so as not to lose its influence over the country, out of concern that important things on the Korean Peninsula might otherwise be determined without its input in the months and years ahead.

"If the momentum of South-North talks is rising, it may encourage the international community to reduce sanctions" on Pyongyang, a source with expertise on Korean affairs said. "North Korea expects China and Russia to follow suit."

Since late last year, North Korea's main exports such as coal and seafood have been banned and its imports of refined petroleum products have been severely restricted.

In January, China's imports from North Korea plunged nearly 77 percent to around $47.1 million from a year earlier, data released by the General Administration of Customs showed in February.

Given that China used to account for about 90 percent of North Korea's external trade, Pyongyang is more than willing to mend ties with Beijing if that would lessen the impact of international economic sanctions, the source said.

In his first public speech as the country's leader in April 2012, Kim pledged to ensure that "the people will never have to tighten their belt again," showing his intention to tackle poverty through adequate food provision and rebuild the stagnant economy.

The source said, "While trying to make North Korea a nuclear power, Kim has pursued economic development. Kim may have started to think that international economic sanctions have hampered the achievement of one of his goals."

Since the 1950-1953 Korean War, China has backed North Korea, regarding it as a strategic buffer against South Korea, where U.S. military forces are stationed. It has long wielded influence as its neighbor's main economic lifeline.

In recent years, however, bilateral relations have been cooled considerably, especially after Kim purged his once-powerful uncle Jang Song Thaek in 2013. Jang was Beijing's most significant link to Pyongyang's leadership.

Since he took office in 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping has never met with Kim, who became North Korea's supreme leader following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in 2011.

In November, Song Tao, head of the Chinese Communist Party's International Department, visited North Korea as Xi's special envoy, but he did not meet with Kim.

Around 10 days after Song's trip to the North, Pyongyang test-fired what it claimed is a more powerful intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting anywhere in the United States with a nuclear warhead.

China, meanwhile, has struggled to avoid irritating North Korea, although it has been asked by other countries, such as the United States and Japan, to play a key role in dealing with the nuclear crisis.

Beijing "does not want to press the North too much for fear of making another unfriendly or even worse enemy in the region," said Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor of politics at the International Christian University in Tokyo.

China has been concerned that taking hard-line stance on North Korea "could lead the Pyongyang to turn some of its missiles towards Beijing," Nagy added.

Moreover, China, which shares a land border with North Korea, is worried about military conflict on the Korean Peninsula, as it may trigger a massive influx of North Korean refugees or could escalate to nuclear use in the worst-case scenario.

Arguing that the nuclear issue should be resolved through talks, Beijing has proposed a "double suspension" approach, where Pyongyang would stop its nuclear and missile activities in exchange for Washington and Seoul suspending their joint military drills.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has said China's efforts have caused a recent inter-Korean thaw, praising the proposal that he himself had presented last year.

During the Feb. 9-25 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, "North Korea did not carry out a new nuclear test, and the United States and South Korea refrained from military exercises against North Korea," Wang said at a press conference last week.

"The fact is that China's double suspension proposal worked as a medicine and was proved to lay the best groundwork for improvement in North-South relations," Wang added.

But many policymakers outside China are sharing the view that Beijing has not necessarily contributed to the recent improvement in ties between the two Koreas, which came after Pyongyang decided to join the Winter Olympics in South Korea.

Actually, even Chinese officials and analysts have acknowledged that Beijing's presence on the Korean Peninsula has been waning, as the United States is set to have direct contacts with the North down the road.

Beijing has been making repeated attempts to prevent its influence on the peninsula from decreasing further.

China has "consistently worked on active reconciliation in the region" and "affected U.S. policies against North Korea," said Su Xiaohui, a scholar at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs-affiliated China Institute of International Studies.

"There is no way that China will be absent from discussions on issues related to the Korean Peninsula," Su said in the overseas edition of the People's Daily, a mouthpiece of China's ruling Communist Party.

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