China to send envoy to North Korea

Laurent THOMET
1 / 3
North Korea has sparked global alarm with its nuclear and missile tests in recent months

China will send a special envoy to North Korea this week, the government said Wednesday, days after US President Donald Trump pressed Beijing to do more to curb North Korea's nuclear threats.

The foreign ministry said President Xi Jinping's special envoy, Song Tao, will travel to Pyongyang to brief officials about last month's Chinese Communist Party congress and "other issues of mutual concern".

Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang did not say whether the nuclear issue would be discussed but he said China was "committed to the denuclearisation of the peninsula, safeguarding peace and stability of the peninsula, and resolving the issue through dialogue and consultation".

As Beijing prepared for the mission, Pyongyang maintained its war of words with Trump, with a ruling party newspaper saying the US president deserved the death penalty for insulting North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.

China's announcement came a day after the end of Trump's five-nation tour of Asia, during which the US leader held meetings with Xi and urged him to act fast to rein in North Korea, warning that "time is quickly running out".

Trump has called on the region to take a united stance against the threat posed by isolated North Korea, which has sparked global alarm with its nuclear and missile tests in recent months.

China has backed a series of United Nations sanctions on Pyongyang and imposed banking restrictions on North Koreans, putting the Cold War-era allies at odds.

Song will be the first Chinese envoy to make an official trip to North Korea since October 2016, when vice foreign minister Liu Zhenmin visited. Xi has never met Kim.

Washington has pressed China to strongarm Pyongyang into halting its weapons programmes by intensifying its use of economic leverage over the authoritarian regime.

Asked whether the trip's timing is linked to Trump's visit, Geng said it was "usual practice" for China's Communist Party and the North's Workers Party to brief each other after their mutual congresses. The North held its congress last year.

"At the same time, China and the DPRK will exchange views on relations between the two parties and the two countries, as well as on other issues of mutual concern," he said.

Song, who is head of the Communist Party Central Committee's international affairs department, will present to Pyongyang the "consensus" for a peaceful solution that Trump and Xi reached during their meetings, said Wang Dong, foreign policy specialist at Peking University.

- 'Upping the sanctions' -

"China is now actively making diplomatic efforts," Wang told AFP.

"The envoy's visit is to persuade North Korea, hoping that North Korea will return to the track of peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue," he said.

US officials want Chinese authorities to clamp down on unauthorised trade that they say is still trickling across the North Korean border.

Trump asked Xi last week to work "very hard" on resolving the crisis, while the Chinese leader repeated his plea for negotiations to resolve the dispute peacefully.

On Sunday, Trump said Xi stated that "he is upping the sanctions against" North Korea, but he did not provide details and China has not announced any new punitive measures.

Beijing fears pressuring Kim's regime into collapse, which could trigger a flood of refugees across its border and eliminate a strategic buffer separating China from the US military in South Korea.

China and Russia have campaigned for a "dual track" approach in which the United States would halt its military drills in the region in return for North Korea suspending its weapons programmes, but the proposal has not gained traction.

- 'Hideous criminal' -

"Before Trump's visit to China, there was a strong smell of gunpowder between the US and North Korea," Wang said.

"The nuclear issue at a key point. If the US or North Korea make a wrong move, it will likely result in military conflict. So China is trying to do all sorts of work, first to persuade the United States, and now also North Korea."

China's calls for restraint have not stopped the name calling.

An editorial in North Korea's ruling party newspaper Rodong Sinmun lambasted Trump's visit to South Korea, where he denounced Pyongyang's "cruel dictatorship".

"The worst crime for which he can never be pardoned is that he dared (to) malignantly hurt the dignity of the supreme leadership," the editorial said.

"He should know that he is just a hideous criminal sentenced to death by the Korean people."