China has sent a high-level envoy to North Korea in a bid to improve relations after US President Donald Trump urged Beijing to pressure Pyongyang to end its nuclear weapons programme.
Song Tao will report on the outcome 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, nor said whether he will meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Mr 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 Mr Song’s visit are mixed.
In announcing it, China made no mention of Mr Trump’s visit to Beijing last week or the North’s weapons programmes. Mr Song is not directly connected to China’s efforts to convince Pyongyang to return to denuclearisation 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.
Mr Song’s visit to Pyongyang 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 Mr Xi. Mr Song will be the first ministerial-level Chinese official to visit North Korea since October 2015, when Politburo Standing Committee member Liu Yunshan met Kim.
The two ruling parties have long-standing links that often supersede formal diplomacy, even while Beijing has 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 harsh new UN sanctions targeting the North’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.