BEIJING/SEOUL -- Chinese President Xi Jinping is sending a special envoy to North Korea on Friday, placing further pressure on the rogue state to exercise restraint on its nuclear and missile development and to seek dialogue with the U.S.
China's state-run Xinhua News Agency and the North's Korean Central News Agency both identified Song Tao, who heads the international liaison department of the Chinese Communist Party's Central Committee, as the envoy. The last trip by a high-ranking Chinese official to North Korea was in October 2016.
Beijing sent a special envoy to the fellow communist regimes in Vietnam, Laos and North Korea following its last two party congresses in 2007 and 2012. Song has already visited Vietnam and Laos after the twice-a-decade event last month, and his North Korea trip is ostensibly just part of the routine.
It is unclear how long Song will stay in the North, but a source familiar with the matter said about four days. He is likely to meet with Ri Su Yong, a top official and former foreign minister.
Song is a cabinet-level official believed to be close to Xi, and a member of the powerful Central Committee. Yet he may represent a downgrade. After the 2007 and 2012 congresses, a member of the top party body, the Politburo, met directly with North Korean leaders.
Song will be discussing the countries' mutual interests, such as their bilateral relations, during his trip to the North, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters Wednesday. Pyongyang's nuclear and missile development presumably will be a key topic. Song may also relay the U.S. position on North Korea articulated by President Donald Trump during his recent trip to China.
North Korea is growing suspicious of China for working with the U.S. on sanctions against it. Song is unlikely to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a source familiar with the matter said.
The visit signals that relations between China and North Korea are headed in a positive direction, Yuan Peng, vice president of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, told reporters Wednesday. He said Beijing is both criticizing the North's misguided actions while also valuing the countries' traditional friendship.
Pyongyang is maintaining a tough line on Washington. Ruling party mouthpiece Rodong Sinmun on Wednesday slammed Trump for insulting the North during his Nov. 8 speech to the South Korean National Assembly.
Still, there have been no North Korean military provocations since a missile test on Sept. 15. Observers believe that U.S. military exercises nearby, which involved three nuclear aircraft carriers, and United Nations sanctions targeting 90% of North Korean exports have been effective to a degree.
While the rogue state is seeking an opening for talks with the U.S., it refuses to take part in any negotiation toward its denuclearization. The Kim regime could ask Song to have China serve as a middleman with the U.S. But with Pyongyang's distrust of Beijing mounting, it is unclear whether they can make any breakthrough on the nuclear issue.