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Senior Chinese envoy heads to North Korea amid icy ties

/ 01:56 PM November 17, 2017

Minister Song Tao (center), head of China’s ruling Communist Party’s International Liaison Department, arrives at the Beijing Capital International Airport on Friday, November 17, 2017. Chinese state media said Song would travel to Pyongyang  to report on the party’s national congress held last month. Song would be the first ministerial-level Chinese official to visit North Korea since October 2015. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

BEIJING — China was preparing to dispatch its highest-level envoy to North Korea on Friday in a bid to improve chilly relations, after United States President Donald Trump urged Beijing last week to use its influence to convince Pyongyang to cease its nuclear weapons program.

Song Tao would report on the outcomes of China’s ruling Communist Party congress held last month and visit counterparts in his role as President Xi Jinping’s special envoy, according to Chinese state media. China has given no other details about his itinerary or whether he would meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The visit, a first in two years, could be seen as a “starting point to explore new China-North Korea relations,” said Lim Eul Chul, a North Korea expert at South Korea’s Kyungnam University.

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Xi wants to take the initiative on the North Korean nuclear issue to head off further pressure from Washington, Lim said.

“For Xi, the resolution of the North Korean issue is directly related to relations with the United States. He would continuously get pressed by the United States and be placed on the defensive unless he settles the North Korean problem,” he said.

Song heads the Communist Party’s International Department and holds the rank of minister.

China’s relations with North Korea have deteriorated under Kim, who has ignored Beijing’s calls to end nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests and return to disarmament talks.

Expectations for Song’s visit are mixed. In announcing it, China made no mention of Trump’s visit to Beijing or North Korea’s weapons programs. Song is not directly connected to China’s efforts to convince Pyongyang to return to denuclearization talks, seemingly reducing the chances for a breakthrough in that highly contentious area.

North Korea staged its sixth nuclear test on September 3, detonating what it claimed was a hydrogen bomb, and last launched a ballistic missile on September 15, firing it over the Japanese island of Hokkaido into the Pacific Ocean.

Song is expected to relay China’s hopes for North Korea to stop conducting nuclear and missile tests in exchange for incentives, and to assess whether North Korea has any intention of returning to disarmament talks, said Cheong Seong-Chang, an analyst at South Korea’s Sejong Institute.

North Korea, for its part, would “find it difficult to reject China’s envoy dispatch because it faces a very serious international isolation … and wants to know what position China has and if there are any ways to ease international sanctions,” Cheong said.

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Song’s visit to Pyongyang also comes as China and South Korea are repairing their relations that soured over China’s objection to Seoul’s deployment of a US anti-missile system. South Korean President Moon Jae-in is scheduled to visit China next month for talks with Xi.

Song will be the first ministerial-level Chinese official to visit North Korea since October 2015, when Politburo Standing Committee member Liu Yunshan met with Kim. Liu delivered a letter to Kim from Xi expressing hopes for a strong relationship, although the respite in frosty ties proved short-lived. Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin visited Pyongyang in October last year.

The two ruling parties have long-standing ties that often supersede formal diplomacy, even while Beijing has long been frustrated with Pyongyang’s provocations and unwillingness to reform its economy.

China is also North Korea’s largest trading partner and chief source of food and fuel aid although it says its influence with Kim’s regime is often exaggerated by the US and others.

While it is enforcing new United Nations sanctions targeting North Korea’s sources of foreign currency, Beijing has called for steps to renew dialogue. Beijing is opposed to measures that could bring down Kim’s regime and lead to a refugee crisis along its border.                  /kga

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TAGS: China, Diplomacy, Donald Trump, Kim Jong-Un, North korea, Nuclear Weapons Program, Security, Song Tao, US
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