China's Parliament chief Li Zhanshu to visit North Korea as Xi envoy

China's Parliament chief Li Zhanshu will attend celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the founding of North Korea on Sept 9, 2018.
China's Parliament chief Li Zhanshu will attend celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the founding of North Korea on Sept 9, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (AFP) - Chinese President Xi Jinping will send a close ally to North Korea’s 70th anniversary celebrations, it was announced on Tuesday (Sept 4), following speculation he would use the occasion to make his first official trip to Pyongyang.

Li Zhanshu, a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s seven-member politburo standing committee or ruling council, and the head of the legislature, was invited by the North Korean government and its ruling Workers Party, China's official news agency Xinhua said.

North Korea’s official KCNA news agency said Li’s delegation would visit the country from Saturday.

The anniversary of the nation’s founding in 1948 falls on Sunday. 

Xi has never travelled to Pyongyang since coming to power in 2012, as relations worsened over the North’s missile and nuclear tests and China’s subsequent backing of United Nations' sanctions.

Hu Jintao in 2005 was the last Chinese president to visit North Korea, and the last top Chinese leader to go was the then-premier Wen Jiabao in 2009. 

But relations between the allies have improved in recent months, with the North’s leader Kim Jong Un making three trips to China this year alone. 

Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Pyongyang in April, the first such visit since 2007. 

The Straits Times newspaper in Singapore had reported last month that Xi would attend the anniversary. 

But Li’s attendance, instead of Xi, may suggest Beijing wants Kim to make more efforts to resolve international tensions before a presidential visit. 

The North Korean leader pledged to work towards the “complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula” during his historic meeting with US President Donald Trump in June in Singapore.

Those efforts stalled several weeks ago and Trump ordered Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to cancel a planned trip to Pyongyang in August.

Trump has suggested that Beijing is using North Korea as a pawn in the US-China trade war by encouraging Kim to take a tough stance on denuclearisation. 

Beijing is Pyongyang’s sole major ally, and the main transit country for any goods entering the North. Trump said in late August that China was no longer being as tough as it could be on North Korea. 

Beijing rejected Trump’s accusations “as irresponsible and absurd logic”.