BEIJING — China is sending a senior diplomat to visit North Korea as an envoy of President Xi Jinping, state media reported Wednesday, reopening a channel of dialogue with the isolated regime.
The announcement comes a week after President Trump visited China and asked Xi to work hard to fix the problem of North Korea’s nuclear program. But it is not clear whether this trip has anything to do with that visit.
State-run Xinhua news agency said Song Tao, who heads the Communist Party’s external affairs department, will visit from Friday, to “inform” the government there about the recently concluded Communist Party Congress that took place in Beijing.
Indeed, Beijing routinely undertakes such trips to fellow Communist states after key party meetings, and Song has already visited Vietnam and Laos on a similar mission.
Xinhua did not say if Song would discuss North Korea’s nuclear program or meet the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un. Nevertheless it is an important opportunity for Beijing to reopen a channel of dialogue with the isolated regime, experts said, as relations between the countries have deteriorated significantly in recent years.
China has an official special envoy to North Korea, Kong Xuanyou, but he is not believed to have visited Pyongyang since taking the job in August. His predecessor, Wu Dawei, last visited North Korea in February 2016, but Song will be the first ministerial-level visit since Politburo Standing Committee member Liu Yunshan visited Pyongyang and met Kim in October 2015.
Xi is believed to be very frustrated with North Korea’s aggressive development and testing of its nuclear and missile program, and has imposed a relatively strict set of sanctions under U.S. pressure and in line with United Nations Security Council resolutions.
But China still dominates trade with North Korea and is unwilling to cut off the regime’s economic lifeline, symbolized by a pipeline that supplies the crude oil that keeps the country’s military and industry afloat.
It does not want to see a fellow Communist regime and long-standing ally toppled, but equally does not want the current regime to turn hostile and threaten China with its nuclear weapons and missiles.
“They still want to balance and they want to maintain some channels,” said Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing. “Relations have really deteriorated, and the Chinese recognize that. They don’t want relations to fall apart.”
Haenle said the visit might include some “sweet talk” for Pyongyang about working together, but that the Chinese would also be making their displeasure known.
While in Beijing, Trump said China can fix the North Korea problem “quickly and easily,” and urged Xi “to hopefully work on it very hard.”
“If he works on it hard, it will happen,” Trump said. “There’s no doubt about it.”
After leaving China, he suggested more action by Beijing was coming up.
“President Xi of China has stated that he is upping the sanctions against #NoKo. Said he wants them to denuclearize. Progress is being made,” Trump tweeted on Saturday.
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