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China will send a special envoy to North Korea on Friday, signaling a potential thaw

From left, China's President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump shake hands on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017 during a meeting outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China. (Artyom Ivanov/Tass/Abaca Press/TNS)

China will send a special envoy to North Korea on Friday, just days after President Donald Trump’s visit to Asia, Chinese and North Korean state media announced Wednesday, marking a potential diplomatic thaw between Pyongyang and Beijing.

The announcement closely follows Trump’s Tuesday departure from Asia after a 13-day trip in which North Korea topped the agenda. Chinese President Xi Jinping will send special envoy Song Tao, the head of China’s ruling Communist Party’s International Liaison Department, to Pyongyang, according to the announcement.

Trump has made pressuring China a centerpiece of his strategy to thwart North Korea’s ambition of developing the ability to launch a nuclear strike on the continental U.S. In Beijing last week, he pressured Xi to work “very hard” on the issue. Xi, in turn, “stated that he is upping the sanctions” against North Korea, Trump tweeted on Saturday.

“The optimistic spin is that Donald Trump got through to the Chinese, and maybe the Chinese are taking this seriously — they’re going to send somebody to Pyongyang to talk about coming around on the nuclear program,” said Robert Kelly, associate professor in political science at Pusan National University in South Korea. “But it’s probably more information sharing — the North Koreans want to know what’s going on.”

“The timing strongly suggests that this is in response to the Trump trip,” he continued. “But past American presidents have pushed China on North Korea before, and China’s never come around.”

Song, the envoy, will “inform” North Korea’s leadership about the outcome of the 19th Party Congress, a major political conclave in Beijing last month which appointed Xi to a second five-year term, China’s official New China News Agency reported. Song has visited Vietnam and Laos, both fellow Communist states, on the same mission following the congress.

At a regular briefing on Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said only that Song intends to debrief North Korean leaders on the congress. He declined to specify whether the envoy would also discuss Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. “During his visit, he will exchange views on major issues of common concern,” Geng said.

China is North Korea’s main ally and trading partner, accounting for 90 percent of the isolated state’s trade volume. Yet China-North Korea relations have deteriorated in recent months. Beijing has been rattled by Pyongyang’s recent string of missile tests — the country has conducted 15 since February — and a nuclear test in September, which occurred hours before Xi’s introductory speech at a major international summit in southeast China.

No ministerial-level Chinese official has visited North Korea since 2015, when Liu Yunshan, a member of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, met with Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin visited Pyongyang in October 2016.

Few details of either visit have been made public.

North Korea has not tested a missile in two months.

China has pledged to enforce the latest round of United Nations Security Council sanctions, approved in August, which could cut $1 billion from North Korea’s export revenue when they take full effect in January. Yet analysts say that China’s North Korea strategy hasn’t fundamentally changed in decades — Beijing worries that instability in Pyongyang could damage its national interests, and has yet to take any measures that would truly strangle its northeastern neighbor.

Trump, during his trip, at times appeared to hold out an olive branch to Pyongyang. While in Seoul, he suggested Kim “come to the table and make a deal.” Yet near the end of the trip he appeared to reverse course by insulting Kim on Twitter, insinuating that he is “short and fat.”

North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency responded to Trump’s trip with characteristic vitriol, calling the U.S. president an “old lunatic.” It criticized Japan and the U.S. for “increasing the danger of a nuclear war.”

“Japan should mind that it will face a miserable end should it go recklessly relying on the U.S., which is no more than a paper tiger,” it said.

(Special correspondent Jessica Meyers contributed to this report.)


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