China told an envoy of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that Pyongyang should stop conducting nuclear and missile tests, but the North showed little sign of heeding the request, said a source with knowledge of the talks held late last month.
Kim dispatched Choe Ryong-hae, vice chairman of the country’s top military body, to explain North Korea’s recent actions, but he got a lukewarm reception from his Chinese hosts, said the source, who has close ties to Beijing and Pyongyang.
North Korea’s 30-year-old leader took power in December 2011 and has carried out two long-range rocket launches and a nuclear weapons test since then. He also embarked on a months-long campaign of threats against South Korea and the US.
“[North] Korea has not mellowed,” said the source, who did not attend the meetings, but has since spoken to both sides to which he has regular access.
Choe, nominally a general but with no known military experience, is the Korean People’s Army’s top ideologue. He showed up in Beijing in full military regalia, in contrast to his suited Chinese counterparts.
Experts have said the three-day visit was an attempt by North Korea to mend fences with its only major diplomatic ally, which has been critical of Pyongyang.
After the meetings, in which Choe eventually held talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), North Korea promised to take “positive steps for peace,” while China repeated its mantra of wanting “calm and restraint” on the Korean Peninsula.
Beijing tried to convince Pyongyang to stop its nuclear and missile tests, which “put China in a difficult position and are not conducive to [North] Korea,” the source said.
China advised North Korea to focus on rebuilding its ruined economy instead, something it has said before.
North Korea’s recent actions drew international condemnation and put Beijing under pressure, especially from Washington, to rein in Pyongyang.
It also helped reinforce a US strategy of rebalancing its security policies toward the Asia-Pacific.
China is North Korea’s biggest trade partner and aid donor. Choe was shown a special enterprise zone during his visit, but he did not raise the issue of aid during his talks, the source added.
Asked if Pyongyang had agreed to halt nuclear tests, the source said that for the North: “It hinges on necessity.”
North Korea has repeatedly said it will never abandon its nuclear weapons, calling them its “treasured sword.”
The source did not say if Beijing spelt out any consequences should the North conduct further tests.
North Korea felt the reception Choe got was lukewarm, the source said. It was the most important visit to China by a North Korean delegation since the young Kim’s uncle, a kingmaker among Pyongyang’s ruling elite, visited Beijing late last year.
“There was no bear hug between Wang Jiarui (王家瑞) and Choe when they met,” the source said, referring to the Chinese Communist Party’s International Department minister, who is responsible for dealing with foreign political parties.
Such greetings have been a tradition between North Korean and Chinese leaders, who once saw their relationship as “close as lips and teeth.”