China's deputy foreign minister today begins a visit to North Korea, making him the most senior envoy Beijing has acknowledged sending to its neighbour since its young leader had his uncle executed in December.
The late Jang Song-thaek was North Korea's second-most powerful figure and provided a valuable link between the two countries until he was purged.
"Deputy foreign minister Liu Zhenmin will start his visit to the DPRK from today and the visit will last until February 20," foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a press briefing, referring to the North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
"As far as I have learned, it is a regular exchange of the two foreign ministries," she said.
Hua said earlier this month that another foreign ministry delegation had visited Pyongyang, also saying it was a continuation of close communication between the two nations.
China is North Korea's key ally and protector, providing badly needed trade and aid lest the regime collapses and unleashes chaos across the border that would let the United States bolster its presence in East Asia.
Pyongyang routinely defies Beijing's calls for calm, restraint and denuclearisation, pushing ahead with nuclear weapons tests and issuing threats against the US and South Korea.
Relations have been further strained since Kim Jong-un took over power in North Korea after his father Kim Jong-il died in 2011, making him the third leader in a family dynasty.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said during his visit to China last week that he had obtained a commitment from Beijing to take an extra step if Pyongyang was not sincere about the denuclearisation programme.