Chinese President Xi Jinping will not be Kim Jong Un’s guest of honor for a slew of events set to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of North Korea.

Xinhua and the Korean Central News Agency confirmed yesterday that Xi’s right-hand man Li Zhanshu, the third-highest-ranking Communist Party figure after Xi and Premier Li Keqiang, will lead a top delegation to Pyongyang this Saturday as Xi’s special envoy.

Li, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament, is scheduled to attend a key military parade to be held in Kim Il Sung Square. A platoon of People’s Liberation Army honor guards is reported to be taking part in the parade.

The announcement has come as a surprise, since Xinhua reported in June, during Kim’s third trip to China in only three months, that Xi had “accepted with pleasure” Kim’s invite to visit North Korea.

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Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, where a major military parade is expected to take place on September 9. Photo: AFP/KCNA

Since it is regarded as rude in Chinese culture not to pay a reciprocal call after multiple visits by a close ally, observers wonder if Xi’s decision to shun Kim’s National Day bash augurs badly for relations between the two countries.

Rumor had it last month that Xi would soon fly to Pyongyang, aboard the same Air China plane that carried Kim to Singapore for his summit with US President Donald Trump in June. Stepped-up immigration controls in the northeastern provinces of Liaoning and Jilin that border North Korea were also interpreted as precautionary measures ahead of a visit by Xi.

One reason for the change of heart may be that Xi is struggling with a packed schedule with heads of state from more than 50 African nations gathered in Beijing for the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation.

Significantly, the announcement was first made by a spokesman of the Communist Party of China’s International Liaison Department rather than the Chinese Foreign Ministry. This underlines that Beijing’s relationship with Pyongyang is more than merely diplomatic.

It is thought that Li Zhanshu may deliver a letter from Xi, as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi did during a visit to Pyongyang in May.

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File photos of Xi Jinping, then vice-president, being greeted by Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in June 2008. Photos: Xinhua

Xi visited Pyongyang in 2008 in his capacity at the time as vice-president, when he was received by Kim Jong Il. Xi’s two predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, also paid state visits in the early 2000s to emphasize the camaraderie between the two Communist nations.

The flurry of exchanges ground to a halt in 2015, after then Politburo standing member Liu Yunshan’s trip to Pyongyang, when Beijing joined the international community in censuring and imposing sanctions on Pyongyang for conducting nuclear tests.

Now it is thought that Xi may show up in Pyongyang at a future date, possibly after attending the Eastern Economic Forum to be held in the Russian city of Vladivostok from September 11 to 13. He may also have the chance to meet Kim in Vladivostok now that Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent a forum invite to the North Korean leader.

Read more: Inside the old Air China jet that carried Kim to meet Trump