Chinese, N.Korean envoys discuss regional concerns: state media

Dan Martin
This picture taken on November 17, 2017 and released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency shows Song Tao (3rd L)attending a meeting with Choe Ryong Hae (2nd R), a senior official of the North's ruling party

A senior Chinese envoy discussed regional concerns with officials in Pyongyang on Saturday, North Korean state media said, as the US presses China to help ease the standoff over the North's nuclear weapons.

The visit by Song Tao, described by Pyongyang as a special envoy of President Xi Jinping, is the first by a senior Chinese envoy for more than a year.

Relations are severely stressed over Pyongyang's nuclear sabre-rattling and Beijing's support for tough UN sanctions on its neighbour.

"The two sides exchanged their views on such matters of mutual concern as the situation of the Korean peninsula and region and bilateral relations," the official KCNA news agency said in describing Song's talks with Ri Su-Yong, a senior ruling party leader, and other officials.

Relations between the two communist neighbours, once said by Mao Zedong to be "as close as lips and teeth", are at their worst in decades over North Korea's actions, and Beijing faces pressure from US President Donald Trump to pile pressure on Pyongyang.

Song, who arrived on Friday, met that day with Choe Ryong-Hae, another senior official in North Korea's ruling party and a close aide to leader Kim Jong-Un.

Each side's account of the meeting with Choe mentioned that both sides stressed the importance of their longstanding ties.

- 'Common treasure' -

A Chinese Communist Party report on the Choe-Song talks said they agreed that mutual ties were "the common treasure of the two peoples" and that both sides "should make concerted efforts" to maintain them.

The United States wants China, which accounts for 90 percent of North Korea's foreign trade, to apply more economic pressure.

Trump, who warned Xi during his trip to Beijing this month that time was "quickly running out" to solve the nuclear crisis, took to Twitter on Thursday to hail Song's mission as "a big move, we'll see what happens!"

But experts have expressed doubt it will yield breakthroughs, saying Beijing has far less political influence on Kim than is thought despite the economic ties.

"Relations are extremely stressed. Perhaps the lowest point since the Korean War. Perhaps (the mission) will put a floor under China-North Korea relations, preventing further deterioration," said Bonnie Glaser, China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

China has imposed its own banking restrictions on North Koreans in addition to enforcing a series of UN measures that include bans on imports of coal, iron ore and seafood from the North.

But Beijing fears that squeezing Pyongyang too hard would cause its collapse. Analysts say Song's trip is probably aimed more at urging Kim's regime not to escalate tensions rather than applying real pressure for disarmament.

As nuclear tensions have soared, Xi has pushed for negotiations and a "dual track approach" in which the United States would freeze its military drills in South Korea while North Korea halts its weapons programmes.

Trump claimed this week that Xi had agreed during their talks last week to drop that approach, but Beijing subsequently stood by the policy.