SEOUL/BEIJING – China’s special envoy on North Korea met high-ranking North Korean official Choe Ryong Hae after he arrived in the capital, Pyongyang, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency reported Saturday.
Special representative Song Tao, the head of the ruling Communist Party’s external affairs department, informed Choe about China’s 19th National Congress “in detail,” and stressed China’s stance to steadily develop the traditionally friendly relations between the two parties and countries, KCNA said.
Song agreed Friday with Choe to promote better bilateral ties, amid an ongoing pause in Pyongyang’s saber-rattling.
The Chinese department said the senior officials agreed that “both sides should make joint efforts to promote the development of relations between the two parties and the two countries to benefit their peoples.”
The department also said they discussed bilateral relations and expressed that the “traditional friendship” between China and North Korea is the “common treasure” of the peoples of the two countries nurtured by their past leaders.
The meeting took place after a Chinese delegation led by Song arrived in the North Korean capital Friday afternoon.
The influential state-run Chinese tabloid the Global Times said in an editorial that it was unwise to expect too much from his trip, saying his key mission was to inform North Korea about the recently concluded Communist Party Congress in Beijing.
“Song is not a magician,” the newspaper said.
“The key to easing the situation on the peninsula lies in the hands of Washington and Pyongyang,” it said. “If both sides insist on their own logic and refuse to move in the same direction, even if Song opens a door for talks, the door could be closed any time.”
China has repeatedly pushed for a diplomatic solution to the crisis over North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and missiles to carry them, but in recent months it has had only limited high-level exchanges with North Korea.
The last time China’s special envoy for North Korea visited the country was in February last year.
Song’s trip comes just a week after U.S. President Donald Trump visited Beijing as part of an Asia tour, where he pressed for greater action to rein in North Korea, especially from China, with which North Korea does 90 percent of its trade.
But experts doubt Song’s visit will yield major breakthroughs.
“China has virtually no political influence on North Korea. Its influence is derived from economic leverage,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“Relations are extremely stressed. Perhaps the lowest point since the Korean War,” she said. “Perhaps (the mission) will put a floor under China-North Korea relations, preventing further deterioration.”
Song has already visited Vietnam and Laos to inform them of the results of the congress, a typical courtesy China extends other communist countries after such important meetings.
It is not clear whether Song will meet North Korea’s youthful leader Kim Jong Un.
Kim and Chinese President Xi Jinping exchanged messages of congratulations and thanks over the Chinese party congress, but neither leader has visited the other’s country since assuming power.
Song’s department is in charge of the party’s relations with foreign political parties, and has traditionally served as a conduit for Chinese diplomacy with North Korea.
The 10-member Chinese delegation led by Song, a former vice foreign minister, appears to be staying in North Korea until Monday, a source familiar with the situation said.
China’s new special envoy for North Korea, Kong Xuanyou, who took up his position in August, is not believed to have visited the country since assuming the job.