China, North Korea envoys hold talks in Laos

North Korea's new Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho (front) disembarks a plane to attend the 23rd Asean Regional Forum as part of the 49th Asean Foreign Ministers Meeting, at the airport in Vientiane, Laos, July 24.
North Korea's new Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho (front) disembarks a plane to attend the 23rd Asean Regional Forum as part of the 49th Asean Foreign Ministers Meeting, at the airport in Vientiane, Laos, July 24. PHOTO: EPA

VIENTIANE (AFP) - Top envoys from China and North Korea held talks on Monday (July 25) on the sidelines of a regional summit in Laos as tensions run high on the Korean peninsula over Pyongyang's nuclear programme.

North Korea's newly minted Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, a former nuclear negotiator for the hermit state, and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi met in the capital Vientiane.

It is the first time Ri has attended a major diplomatic gathering since his appointment in May.

A phalanx of security guards from both Laos and North Korea guarded the room where the meeting was taking place.

Relations between Beijing and Pyongyang have frayed this year after North Korea's fourth nuclear test and a series of missile launches put the region on edge.

In response to the new tests - the most recent of which was last Tuesday - Washington and Seoul announced plans to deploy a US missile defence system in South Korea, sparking fury in Pyongyang and concern in Beijing.

In the face of continued North Korean provocation, the United States spearheaded the drafting of a new UN resolution adopted unanimously in March by Security Council members, including China - North Korea's main diplomatic protector and economic benefactor.

Washington has since urged China to use its leverage over Pyongyang to implement tougher sanctions and push the reclusive state towards bankruptcy.

But Beijing is wary of pushing the North too far, fearing a regime collapse that could create a refugee crisis on its border and swing the regional balance of power towards the United States.

In June, Chinese president Xi Jinping stressed the importance of "friendly relations" with the North at a meeting with a top North Korean official.

North Korea formally withdrew in 2009 from six-party talks with South Korea, the United States, Russia, China and Japan that were aimed at tackling the nuclear issue.

Beijing wants the talks revived but Washington, Seoul and Tokyo all insist Pyongyang must first take some tangible step towards denuclearisation.

Beijing previously acted as a buffer between Pyongyang and the other five members, using cash to lure North Korea back to the negotiating table.

Both Ri and Wang are attending a diplomatic gathering organised by the 10-member Association of Southeast Nations (Asean).