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North Korea

China and North Korea will meet when there is ‘mutual willingness’, senior official says

International department vice-minister insists relations are ‘friendly and cooperative’ but won’t say when the two sides last met

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 October, 2017, 5:54pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 October, 2017, 11:15pm

A senior Communist Party official said on Saturday that a meeting between Chinese and North Korean leaders depended on “mutual willingness”, at a time when relations are strained over Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.

Guo Yezhou, vice-minister of the party’s international department, said the communication channel was open but would not say when department head Song Tao last met with the North Korean side.

“We have maintained our traditional friendly and cooperative relations,” Guo said on the sidelines of the party congress in Beijing. “Both sides understand that maintaining good relations ... not only serves the interest of both countries, but also has an influence on peace and stability in the region.

“As for when and at what level the two sides have exchanges, it depends on the needs and convenience of both sides,” Guo said, without elaborating.

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Since he took office in 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping has yet to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Guo did not say when Song last met a North Korean official, but according to the department website, his last such meeting was with Ri Su-yong, vice-chairman of the Central Committee of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party and former foreign minister, when Ri visited Beijing in May last year.

Relations between the two sides have deteriorated as US President Donald Trump continues to apply pressure on China – North Korea’s closest ally – to help rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme.

Pyongyang reportedly did not respond to requests from Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and top nuclear envoy Wu Dawei to meet their North Korean counterparts in April after Xi and Trump met in Florida.

Guo’s department sits directly under the party’s powerful Central Committee and has long played a low-key but active role in China’s foreign policy.

Analysts said relations between Beijing and Pyongyang – even at a party-to-party level – were worsening because of a widening gap over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

“Sino-North Korean relations have sunk to their lowest point in history,” said Lu Chao, an expert on relations between the two countries at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences. “Even regular communication between mid-level officials of the two sides’ ruling parties has stalled,” he said, adding that the situation was unlikely to improve unless Pyongyang changed course and abandoned its nuclear programme.

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Beijing in September backed the latest United Nations sanctions banning exports of liquefied natural gas to North Korea and imports of textiles and seafood from the isolated regime.

The move came after North Korea conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test on September 3.

Trump is expected to push Beijing to put more pressure on North Korea during his trip to China next month.