North Korean leader Kim Jong-un dispatched a high-profile official and close confidant to China yesterday as Beijing faces pressure to rein in its belligerent neighbor.
Choe Ryong-hae, a top Workers’ Party official and a vice marshal tasked with supervising the North Korean military, departed on a chartered Air Koryo flight with a political and military delegation. Chinese Ambassador Liu Hongcai (劉洪才) was among the dignitaries on the tarmac for his departure. Choe, dressed in his military uniform, arrived later in Beijing and left the airport in a motorcade. He was meeting with Wang Jiarui (王家瑞), head of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) international affairs office and long a point man for China on contacts with North Korea, Xinhua news agency reported.
The trip is the highest-profile visit by a North Korean official to China this year, and it takes place as the new leadership in China shows frustration with North Korea and a greater willingness to work with Washington to harry Pyongyang over its nuclear weapons programs. China is Pyongyang’s economic and diplomatic lifeline, providing nearly all of its fuel and most of its trade, and foreign analysts said the trip could be an attempt to win more aid and repair ties.
There are signs of strains in relations between Beijing and Pyongyang over North Korea’s nuclear efforts, which included an underground nuclear test in February. That test, the country’s third, was followed by UN sanctions and a protracted period of high tensions as North Korea threatened nuclear strikes on Washington and Seoul. The Chinese ambassador’s sendoff to the North Korean delegation made up of top party and military officials was cordial. He chatted with Choe briefly, commenting on the weather as they shook hands before the vice marshal boarded his plane.
The rhetoric from Pyongyang has fallen off in recent weeks, and there have been tentative signs of diplomacy in the region as envoys from the US, Japan, South Korea, China and Russia have consulted on how to engage with the North Koreans.
Separately, the Japanese government said yesterday that it was looking into reopening official talks with North Korea to resolve questions over the abductions of Japanese citizens decades ago. The announcement by Japanese chief Cabinet spokesman Yoshihide Suga raised worries among allies who fear Tokyo’s focus on that issue might weaken diplomatic efforts on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had indicated he would potentially be open to holding a summit with Kim if it would lead to a breakthrough on the abductions issue. Abe dispatched a senior adviser to Pyongyang last week, catching Seoul and Washington off guard.
In recent months, the relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang appeared strained. In one sign, China’s state-run Bank of China said this month it had notified the Foreign Trade Bank of North Korea that its accounts were closed and all financial transactions suspended. In another, Chinese fishermen said gunmen in North Korean military uniforms held a crew captive at gunpoint for two weeks before finally releasing the boat this week. The ship’s owner said the captain was beaten and the vessel’s fuel stolen.
Meanwhile, the ministers of defense of South Korea, Japan and the US are to hold their first trilateral meeting for four years at the end of this month, with North Korea likely to top the agenda.
The three top officials will meet on the sidelines of the annual Asia Security Summit to be held in Singapore between Friday next week and June 2, a South Korean Ministry of Defense spokesman said yesterday.
It will be their first three-way ministerial-level meeting since 2009, with defense dialogue between Seoul and Tokyo having been marred in recent years by a long-running territorial dispute and other issues.