SHANGHAI (AFP, REUTERS) - 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 standoff over the North’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 Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un and Mr Xi have exchanged messages of congratulations and thanks over the CCP’s national congress last month (Oct), but neither leader has visited the other’s country since assuming power.
Relations are severely stressed over Pyongyang’s nuclear sabre-rattling and Beijing’s support for tough UN 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 KCNA news agency said on Saturday (Nov 18) in describing Mr Song’s talks with Mr Ri Su Yong, a senior leader of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, and other officials.
Relations between the two communist neighbours, once said by Chairman Mao Zedong to be “as close as lips and teeth”, are at their worst in decades over North Korea’s actions, and Beijing faces pressure from US President Donald Trump to pile pressure on Pyongyang.
Mr Song, who arrived on Friday, met on the same day Mr Choe Ryong Hae, vice-chairman of the Workers’ Party, and a close aide to Mr Kim.
Each side’s account of the meeting with Mr Choe mentioned that both sides stressed the importance of their longstanding ties.
A Chinese Communist Party 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 United States 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 as “a big move, we’ll see what happens!”
But experts have expressed doubt it 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 the 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 Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The influential state-run Chinese tabloid the Global Times also said in an editorial that it was unwise to expect too much from his 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.”
Mr Song arrived in North Korea on Friday, but details of his itinerary have not been unveiled. Diplomatic sources said he may make a four-day visit, during which he could meet Mr Kim, Yonhap news agency reported.
China's new special envoy for North Korea, Mr Kong Xuanyou, who took up his position in August, is not believed to have visited the country since assuming the job.