China dispatched its highest-level envoy to North Korea in two years on Friday in a bid to improve chilly relations after President Donald Trump last week urged Beijing to pressure Pyongyang to cease its nuclear weapons program.
Song Tao will 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 said whether he'll meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The visit 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 the North'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.
The visit comes as Joseph Yun, the U.S. envoy to North Korea, met Friday with his South Korean counterpart Lee Do-hoon on the resort island of Jeju in South Korea to discuss the situation on the Korean Peninsula.
"China, of course, has a big role to play on Northeast Asia security issues," Yun was quoted by South Korea's Yonhap news agency as saying, adding he hoped China "regards the denuclearization as a critical goal. We do hope that special envoy will forward that goal."
North Korea staged its sixth nuclear test on Sept. 3, detonating what it claimed was a hydrogen bomb, and last launched a ballistic missile on Sept. 15, firing it over the Japanese island of Hokkaido into the Pacific Ocean.
Song is expected to relay China's hopes for the North to stop conducting nuclear and missile tests in return for incentives and to assess whether the North 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.
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 U.S. 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 U.S. and others.
While it is enforcing harsh new U.N. 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.
Associated Press writer Hyung-jin contributed to this report.