North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s top military deputy met with a senior Communist Party official in China as ties between the allies showed strain over the North’s nuclear ambitions and the seizure of a fishing boat.
Choe Ryong Hae, vice marshal of the North Korean military and head of its political bureau, met yesterday with Wang Jiarui, head of the party’s international department, said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei. Hong declined to give details of Choe’s meeting with Wang or answer a question about whether the meeting will lead to a China visit by Kim.
Choe is the highest-ranking official to visit China since Kim succeeded his late father, Kim Jong Il, in December 2011. North Korea depends on China for fuel oil and consumer goods, and trade between the two has dropped since Kim’s regime fired a long-range rocket in December and detonated a nuclear device in February in defiance of international sanctions.
“It is the young leader’s effort to redress some tension over the nuclear test and the threatening actions,” Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Peking University, said by phone yesterday. “Beijing is very irritated.”
China has tightened sanctions on the totalitarian state in response to international pressure. A Chinese state bank closed the account of a North Korean lender earlier this month.
State Councilor and foreign policy chief Yang Jiechi last month pledged “firm commitment” to working with the U.S. to convince the North to abandon its atomic ambitions. President Barack Obama and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping will meet in California next month for the first time since Xi took office in March.
“China is always committed to the realization of denuclearization, peace and stability on the Korean peninsula,” Hong said at a briefing in Beijing yesterday. “China is always committed to the settlement of the Korean Peninsula issue through dialog and consultation.’
The trip also comes before a May 31-June 2 security forum in Singapore that will be attended by Asian defense ministers and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
The envoy was seen off at the airport in Pyongyang yesterday by Kim Kyok Sik, whom the North’s official Korean Central News Agency identified in as the regime’s head of the army’s general staff. Kim was replaced as defense minister last week by a younger general named Jang Jong Nam.
Choe, 63, holds the second-highest rank in the North Korean military after Kim Jong Un. He rose to prominence in October 2010, when Kim Jong Il tapped him to serve as a guardian for his son and successor.
Kim’s choosing Choe signals that the envoy’s meetings will be focused on responding to Chinese security concerns instead of joint economic projects, Cheong Seong Chang, senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, said in an e-mail.
‘‘Kim sent the second most powerful person in the military as his envoy, as a response to China’s desire to talk about the North Korean nuclear weapons program and its long-range missiles, rather than bilateral economic ties,” Cheong said.
North Korea on May 21 freed a Chinese fishing vessel and its crew after the boat’s owner posted comments on his microblog saying he’d been told to pay a 600,000 yuan ($97,800) ransom. China National Radio later said no ransom was paid.
“The releasing of the Chinese boat is another signal that Pyongyang really knows how irritated China is, so they don’t want to do anything that would make Beijing turn its back on North Korea,” Zhu said.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se said May 21 the North’s “erratic behavior” may be taking a toll on China.
South Korean President Park Geun Hye is in discussions with the Chinese about Choe’s trip, as well as her own plans to travel to Beijing next month for summit talks, her office said in a text message yesterday.