China Vice-President meets North Korean leader in Pyongyang

In this photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, meets with visiting Chinese Vice-President Li Yuanchao in Pyongyang, North Korea on Thursday, July 25, 2013. -- PHOTO: AP 
In this photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, meets with visiting Chinese Vice-President Li Yuanchao in Pyongyang, North Korea on Thursday, July 25, 2013. -- PHOTO: AP 

PYONGYANG (AFP) - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has held talks with Chinese Vice-President Li Yuanchao, the highest ranking Chinese official to visit Pyongyang since Mr Kim came to power.

The meeting, which took place on Thursday according to the North's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), comes at a time of strained relations between the two countries.

China is North Korea's only major ally and the isolated state's moribund economy is increasingly dependent on the support of its powerful neighbour.

But relations have soured in the wake of the North's nuclear test in February, with Beijing signing off on tougher sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council in response.

China's new president, Xi Jinping, recently held summit talks with both US President Barack Obama and South Korean President Park Geun Hye.

In each case, Mr Xi offered China's support for efforts to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear programme.

The same message was reportedly delivered to a senior envoy Mr Kim Jong Un sent to Beijing earlier this year.

No summit meeting has yet been set between Mr Xi and Mr Kim, who came to power following the death of his father Kim Jong Il in December, 2011.

Mr Li was officially in Pyongyang as head of a Chinese delegation for the 60th anniversary on Saturday of the 1950-53 Korean War ceasefire.

China's relationship with North Korea - famously described by Mao Zedong as being as close as "lips and teeth" - was forged in the war which China entered to prevent the North's total defeat. But it has weakened significantly over the years, as China's economic transformation has distanced it from the ideological rigidity of the dynastic Kim regime across the border.

During their meeting, Mr Kim said the North "will always remember" China's wartime contribution, according to KCNA which otherwise gave few details of the talks.

In a despatch from Pyongyang, China's official Xinhua news agency said Mr Li had pushed for denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and a resumption of long-stalled six-party talks.

The six-party process - involving the two Koreas,China, Japan, Russia and the United States - is aimed at persuading Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons programme in return for aid and security guarantees.

In line with UN sanctions, Beijing has moved to restrict Pyongyang's financial operations in China which the international community says are the major conduit for funding its nuclear weapons programme.

But while China is clearly frustrated with its mercurial ally, Beijing's main priority remains regional stability.

What China wants to avoid is a sudden collapse of the regime in Pyongyang and a reunified Korea controlled by Seoul and its US ally.