By Ben Blanchard
BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in North Korea on Thursday as Beijing looks to bolster its neighbor, hit by U.N. sanctions over its nuclear and missile programs, a week before Xi and U.S. President Donald Trump meet amid a bitter trade dispute.
Xi, whose entourage includes the head of China's state economic planner, will be in reclusive North Korea for two days, becoming the first Chinese leader to visit in 14 years, and could bring fresh support measures for its floundering, sanctions-bound economy.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, greeted Xi at the airport, Chinese state TV said. Kim's sister, Kim Yo Jong, and officials who played prominent roles in recent nuclear talks with the United States were also on hand.
Xi was driven through Pyongyang in a convertible car and greeted warmly by the crowds on his way to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, a complex that serves as the mausoleum for North Korea's founder, Kim Il Sung, the report said.
"On both sides of the streets were huge crowds of people, a magnificent and unprecedented event," it said.
China is the North's only major ally and the visit comes amid renewed tension on the Korean peninsula as the United States seeks to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.
The trip is also an assertion of a key leverage point that China has in its deteriorating relationship with the United States, diplomats say.
"Comrade Xi Jinping is visiting...in the face of crucial and grave tasks due to complex international relations, which clearly shows the Chinese party and the government place high significance on the friendship," the North's official Rodong Sinmun newspaper said.
The trip highlights two-way ties that "never waver despite any headwinds," and strengthens "blood ties" between the two peoples, it added in a front page commentary.
Xi will hold a summit with Kim Jong Un, attend a welcoming banquet and watch a mass gymnastic performance on his first day, according to Chinese state media.
He is also expected to pay tribute at the Friendship Tower, which commemorates Chinese troops who fought together with North Koreans during the 1950-53 Korean War. The conflict ended in a truce, not a treaty, leaving the North technically still at war with South Korea.
Xi and Kim will meet just a week before a G20 summit in Osaka where Xi and Trump are due to meet in a bid to reset ties poisoned by a bitter trade dispute.
The timing of Xi's visit to North Korea was no accident, said Li Zhonglin, a North Korea expert at China's Yanbian University.
China could be hoping to play a role in coaxing the North and the United States to resume denuclearization talks after this year's failed Kim-Trump summit in Hanoi, he added.
"President Xi's visit to North Korea can play a positive role in bringing about a third U.S.-North Korea summit," Li said. "China wants a breakthrough."
Kim has visited Xi in China four times since last year, and China has praised North Korea and the United States for trying to resolve their issues through dialogue rather than threats of force or military posturing.
While China has signed up to U.N. sanctions for the North's repeated nuclear and missile tests, saying it is enforcing them fully, despite some U.S. doubts, it has also suggested sanctions relief.
China has also defended its "normal" trade and business ties with North Korea.
This week, in a rare honor afforded a foreign leader, Xi wrote in the Rodong Sinmun newspaper that China supported North Korea's "correct direction" in politically resolving issues on the Korean peninsula.
China has also suggested the tough sanctions on the North could be eased if it abides by U.N. resolutions.
With fuel imports limited and most major exports banned, the sanctions appear to be hurting the North's economy.
State media say drought has hit North Korea, with international aid groups reporting food production dropping dramatically amid poor harvests.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Gao Liangping and Se Young Lee in BEIJING and Hyonhee Shin in SEOUL; Editing by Michael Perry, Clarence Fernandez and Nick Macfie)