Chinese President Xi Jinping is dispatching a special envoy to visit North Korea this week, shortly after he hosted U.S. counterpart Donald Trump in Beijing.
Song Tao, head of the Chinese Communist Party’s International Liaison Department, will visit Pyongyang on Friday to brief North Korean officials about last month’s once-in-five-year leadership reshuffle, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. While the party traditionally briefs Communist allies after the party congress, the timing suggests Song may be carrying a message from the Xi-Trump talks.
After the past two party congresses in 2007 and 2012, the party sent a special envoy to visit North Korea, Vietnam and Laos in succession, with Pyongyang the first stop. This time around, Song only visited Vietnam and Laos from Oct. 31 to Nov. 3.
Trump has repeatedly called on China to use its leverage as North Korea’s top financial backer to pressure Kim Jong Un into giving up his quest for the ability to strike the U.S. with a nuclear weapon. While China has backed tougher United Nations sanctions against the country, it also doesn’t want to see his regime collapse — a move that could bring a refugee crisis and U.S. troops on its border.
Official statements from both the White House and Beijing regarding Trump’s visit to China did not refer to any specific progress on North Korea.
“One striking thing was North Korea was absent from his outcome list,” said Shi Yinhong, a foreign affairs adviser to the State Council and director of Renmin University’s Center on American Studies in Beijing. “Apparently, Beijing didn’t make any compromises. But we don’t know what happened behind-the-scenes.”
Song will be the first high-level Chinese official to visit North Korea this year. Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin went to Pyongyang last October, and then-Chinese special envoy Wu Dawei visited in February 2016. He has since retired and it’s unclear if his successor, Kong Xuanyou, has gone to the country since he took up the job in August.
Ties between Beijing and Pyongyang have deteriorated this year as Kim ratcheted up his nuclear and missile tests.
China has repeatedly called for North Korea to denuclearize and backed UN economic sanctions targeting coal, seafood and textile exports. Beijing has also tried to defuse tensions between the U.S. and North Korea.
High-level dialogue between North Korea and China was scaled back after the 2013 execution of Kim’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, who advocated Chinese-style economic reform and had been the major go-to person for leaders in Beijing.
The last visit to Pyongyang by a member of China’s elite Politburo Standing Committee was in October 2015. While Xi and Kim have yet to meet, the Chinese leader called for stable ties in a message to Kim shortly before Trump’s Asia tour.
North Korea has shown public frustration with Beijing’s stance toward its nuclear program, with state media saying China was “dancing to the tune of the U.S.”
The pariah nation also reportedly didn’t respond to an April request from China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi to meet officials in North Korea.