BEIJING -- Chinese President Xi Jinping sat down with a top North Korean official for the first time in three years here on Wednesday, expressing his desire to seek a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.
Xi met with Ri Su Yong, a vice chairman of the central committee of the North's Workers' Party. State-run China Central Television aired a clip of Xi and Ri speaking with a smile as one of its top stories that night.
Xi appears to have made an effort to mend bilateral ties strained by Pyongyang's nuclear test in January.
The president welcomed the North Korean delegation, which came to communicate developments from the Workers' Party congress in early May. Xi said the visit embodied the countries' tradition of strategic discussion of important issues.
He stressed that he values China's relations with the North. He also said that China has maintained a clear and consistent stance on the Korean Peninsula in urging relevant countries to remain calm and exercise restraint, and to bolster communication to preserve stability in the region. Xi also reiterated Chinese calls for the denuclearization of the peninsula.
Ri relayed a message from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that called for strengthening Beijing and Pyongyang's historic friendship while maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and the rest of Northeast Asia. China's Xinhua News Agency did not report any specific response by Ri to Xi's comments.
Many wonder what made the Wednesday meeting possible, considering that Pyongyang just demonstrated its commitment to its nuclear program at the May congress, where it articulated plans for "parallel" economic and nuclear development. Some Chinese experts on the North speculate that Pyongyang may have promised to halt nuclear tests even as it continues to develop nuclear power and other capabilities. Kim, which called North Korea a "responsible nuclear weapons state" back in May, is expected to bolster diplomatic efforts to aid the country's sputtering economy.
The countries may have also discussed the possibility of holding their first summit. But many in China's diplomatic circle remain dissatisfied with North Korea's continued nuclear push. "The North is not a top priority, given developments in the South China Sea and other issues," a Chinese government source said. It's unclear whether Beijing will agree to a visit from Kim.
North Korea sent Choe Ryong Hae, then-director of the military's political bureau, to meet Xi in China three months after its third nuclear test in February 2013. Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao visited North Korea that July. But the exchanges failed to pave the way for Kim's visit to China.
Xi on Wednesday apparently also urged North Korea to return to six-party talks over its nuclear and missile development. Pyongyang is demanding direct negotiations with the U.S., and may have asked China to mediate the exchange.
Chinese government sources say there are no significant changes to Beijing's support of the current North Korean regime, despite the nuclear test in January. The Asian giant is concerned that political instability could result in a flood of refugees storming the countries' borders.