SHANGHAI • A senior Chinese envoy has discussed regional concerns with officials in Pyongyang, North Korean state media said, as the US presses China to help ease the stand-off over North Korea's nuclear weapons programmes.
The visit by Mr Song Tao, described by Pyongyang as a special envoy of President Xi Jinping, is the first by a senior Chinese envoy for more than a year. Mr Song heads the ruling Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) international department.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Mr Xi have exchanged messages of congratulations and thanks over the CCP's national congress last month, but neither leader has visited the other's country since assuming power. Relations are severely strained over Pyongyang's nuclear sabre-rattling and Beijing's support for tough United Nations sanctions on its neighbour.
"The two sides exchanged their views on such matters of mutual concern as the situation of the Korean peninsula and region and bilateral relations," the official Korean Central News Agency said yesterday in describing Mr Song's talks with Mr Ri Su Yong, a senior leader of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party, and other officials.
Relations between the two communist neighbours, once said by late chairman Mao Zedong to be "as close as lips and teeth", are at their worst state in decades over North Korea's actions, and as Beijing faces pressure from United States President Donald Trump to pile pressure on Pyongyang.
Mr Song arrived on Friday and met Mr Choe Ryong Hae, the vice-chairman of the Workers' Party and a close aide to Mr Kim , on the same day.
Each side's account of Mr Song's meeting with Mr Choe mentioned that both stressed the importance of their longstanding ties.
A CCP report on the Choe-Song talks said they agreed that mutual ties were "the common treasure of the two peoples" and that both sides "should make concerted efforts" to maintain them.
The US wants China, which accounts for 90 per cent of North Korea's foreign trade, to apply more economic pressure. Mr Trump, who warned Mr Xi during his trip to Beijing two weeks ago that time was "quickly running out" to solve the nuclear crisis, took to Twitter on Thursday to hail Mr Song's mission, saying: "A big move, we'll see what happens!"
But experts have expressed doubt that the visit will yield breakthroughs, saying Beijing has far less political influence on Mr Kim than is thought, despite the economic ties.
"Relations are extremely stressed, perhaps (at their) lowest point since the Korean War. Perhaps (the mission) will put a floor under China-North Korea relations, preventing further deterioration," said Ms Bonnie Glaser, China expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The state-run Chinese tabloid, the Global Times, also said in an editorial that it was unwise to expect too much from Mr Song's trip.
"Mr Song is not a magician," the newspaper said. "The key to easing the situation on the peninsula lies in the hands of Washington and Pyongyang. If both sides insist on their own logic and refuse to move in the same direction, even if Mr Song opens a door for talks, the door could be closed any time."
Details of Mr Song's itinerary have not been unveiled. Diplomatic sources said he may make a four-day visit, during which he could meet Mr Kim, the Yonhap news agency reported.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS