BEIJING • China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi will visit North Korea this week, becoming the highest ranking Chinese official to travel there in years as Beijing moves to further improve ties with Pyongyang days after a landmark inter-Korea summit.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a brief statement yesterday that Mr Wang will visit North Korea tomorrow and Thursday at the invitation of his North Korean counterpart, Mr Ri Yong Ho.
The two met in Beijing early last month, days after talks between President Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the Chinese capital.
Mr Wang will be the first Chinese foreign minister to visit the North since 2007, an interval which highlights the rough patch that relations between the Cold War-era allies have gone through in recent years. China has backed a series of United Nations sanctions against Pyongyang over its nuclear weapons programme.
But Beijing is likely eager to avoid being sidelined in the wave of diplomacy that led to last Friday's historic summit between Mr Kim and South Korea President Moon Jae In.
Mr Kim is expected to meet US President Donald Trump in the coming weeks at a time and place yet to be decided. Mr Kim has also invited Mr Xi to visit Pyongyang, but no date has been set yet.
"The Chinese are undoubtedly eager to hear what Kim Jong Un's plan is for his meeting with Donald Trump," said Dr Bonnie Glaser, China specialist at the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies. "It is also possible that Wang Yi is in Pyongyang to advance Xi's visit to North Korea," Dr Glaser said, adding that there are rumours Mr Xi could go to Pyongyang before the Trump-Kim summit.
At their summit in the Demilitarised Zone, Mr Kim and Mr Moon decided to seek a peace treaty by the end of the year and hold talks with the United States, and possibly China, to achieve it. The Korean War ceased in 1953 with an armistice rather than a peace treaty. China fought on the North's side.
Being left out of peace talks would be unacceptable to Beijing, Dr Glaser said. "The Chinese want to ensure that they are at the table and have a means to influence the course of events on the peninsula."
While China has backed punitive measures against the North, analysts say Beijing could worry that the diplomatic thaw could lead to a deal between Pyongyang and Washington that goes against its interests.
A divided Korea has played in its favour as the North serves as a buffer from the South, where US troops are stationed. Despite recent tensions, China is the North's sole major ally and top economic partner.
Pyongyang has promised to shut its nuclear test site within weeks and invite American experts and media to verify its closure.
"Beijing is likely irritated that Kim has ignored China's 'freeze for freeze' proposal," Dr Glaser said.
China has repeatedly proposed that the North suspend its nuclear and missile tests in return for the US, Japan and South Korea halting regional military drills.
But while Mr Kim has offered to suspend the tests, he has dropped his demand for the US and its allies to stop military manoeuvres.
"Kim has said nothing about the eventual removal of US troops from Korea, which is almost certainly what China hopes for," Dr Glaser said.