SEOUL/PYONGYANG - A senior Chinese official visiting North Korea told Kim Jong Un that China is willing to work with Pyongyang for the early resumption of international nuclear talks that have been stalled since 2008.
Liu Yunshan, a member of the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee, met with Kim on Friday after arriving in Pyongyang to attend the 70th anniversary of the founding of North Korea’s Workers’ Party, China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported Saturday.
Kim told Liu that North Korea needs a “peaceful and stable external environment” as it strives to develop the economy, Xinhua reported.
Liu presented a letter from Chinese President Xi Jinping to Kim in which he said that Beijing attaches great importance to its traditional friendly ties with Pyongyang, proposing that both sides go hand in hand to cherish their “common treasure,” according to Xinhua.
Liu is China’s most senior official to have visited North Korea since Kim took power following the death of his father in December 2011.
It is the first time in four years that China has sent someone from the Politburo Standing Committee to North Korea.
The last confirmed visit by a member of China’s top circle of power was in October 2011, when Premier Li Keqiang, who was then vice premier, paid a three-day official goodwill visit.
Kim said he believes Liu’s visit will “play an important role in the development of bilateral ties” and expressed hope of working with China to “maintain close high-level exchanges and strengthen pragmatic cooperation in various fields,” according to Xinhua.
North Korea watchers are paying attention to see if the four-day visit starting Friday by Liu, who sits on the ruling party’s seven-member standing committee, will pave the way for a dramatic improvement in bilateral relations.
The celebrations for the 70th founding anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea on Saturday include a military parade in the heart of Pyongyang, featuring tens of thousands of soldiers and citizens who will extol the party’s achievements and express their loyalty to Kim, along with a stream of tanks and a display of numerous weapons.
China is North Korea’s only major ally and its economic lifeline, but bilateral relations have cooled, especially after Pyongyang’s third nuclear test in February 2013 in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
During the meeting with Kim, Liu is quoted as having said that China “adheres to the goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.”
Since becoming China’s president in March 2013, Xi has never met with Kim.
Instead, Xi became the first Chinese president to make an official trip to South Korea before traveling to North Korea — which he has yet to do — since the normalization of ties between Beijing and Seoul in 1992.
The nuclear test was conducted a month ahead of Xi’s inauguration. China, a permanent veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council, backed the international community’s tightening of sanctions against North Korea without a hitch.
In stark contrast, Xi and South Korean President Park Geun-hye have had a number of face-to-face talks, and relations between the two countries are seen as being their best to date.
Park was one of the very few world leaders who joined China’s massive military parade last month marking the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II.
For the parade on Sept. 3 in Beijing, North Korea sent Choe Ryong Hae, a close aide of Kim who is regarded as being ranked around No. 5 in the hierarchy of the Workers’ Party.
Liu also held talks with Choe in Pyongyang.
Liu’s visit to Pyongyang comes as speculation that North Korea will launch a long-range rocket around the anniversary has subsided.
Whether China can play any meaningful role in persuading Kim’s regime to refrain from taking any other provocative action is being widely watched.
When U.S. President Barack Obama had a meeting with Xi in Washington in late September, he strongly urged China to exercise its significant influence on North Korea, according to a U.S. official.
In the weeks leading up to the 70th anniversary celebrations, North Korean officials hinted at a possible rocket launch to put a “satellite” into space, seen by many other countries as a cover for testing its ballistic missile technology and its readiness to carry out a fourth nuclear test.
South Korean and other countries’ intelligence officials say that they have detected no signs of North Korea preparing for such tests in the next few days.
Despite international calls not to take any new action that would heighten regional tensions, North Korea has said it has the legitimate right, like countries, to develop nuclear technology and to launch a rocket.