By Alex Jensen
SEOUL (AA) – Leading North Korean diplomat Ri Su-yong wrapped up a three-day trip to his country’s most important ally and trade partner China Thursday, having personally delivered a message to Chinese President Xi Jinping a day earlier.
Ri had declared at the start of his visit that North Korea’s widely condemned nuclear weapon development was a “permanent” policy -- despite Beijing’s commitment to United Nations sanctions following the North’s fourth ever nuclear test in January and ensuing rocket launch.
The former North Korean foreign minister then held talks with Xi that saw Ri pass on greetings from leader Kim Jong-un and emphasize the development of the North’s “two fronts” -- in reference to the economy and nuclear weapons, according to Pyongyang’s official KCNA news agency Thursday.
Xi reportedly responded by vowing to protect the “friendship” enjoyed by North Korea and China.
The Chinese president was also said to have welcomed Ri and his fellow Workers’ Party officials with a warm atmosphere -- even after the North’s latest attempted ballistic missile test on the same day as the delegation’s arrival.
But the KCNA omitted details provided by China’s own state media, such as Xi’s call upon both Koreas to exercise calm and restraint.
Although Seoul has refused to engage in talks with North Korea until it demonstrates a sincere willingness to denuclearize, Beijing appears to be caught between conflicting interests -- namely maintaining stability on the Korean Peninsula while counterbalancing American influence in the region.
South Korean trade data shows that Chinese imports from the North dropped 22.3 percent on-year in April, suggesting Beijing’s preparedness to at least partly enforce the UN’s punitive measures against Pyongyang.
China fought on the same side as North Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War, however Beijing has in recent years elevated demands for a denuclearized peninsula.
Xi is yet to hold a summit with his North Korean counterpart -- Wednesday’s meeting with Ri was the Chinese president’s first with a ranking Pyongyang official in around three years.