China dispatched its highest-level envoy to North Korea in two years on Friday in a bid to improve chilly relations, after President Trump last week urged Beijing to use its influence to convince Pyongyang to cease its nuclear weapons program. Song Tao will report on the outcomes of China's ruling Communist Party congress held last month and visit counterparts in his role as President Xi Jinping's special envoy, according to Chinese state media. China has given no other details about his itinerary or said whether he'll meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Song heads the Communist Party's International Department and holds the rank of minister.
China's relations with North Korea have deteriorated under Kim, who has ignored Beijing's calls to end nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests and return to disarmament talks. The visit could be seen as a "starting point to explore new China-North Korea relations," Lim Eul Chul, a North Korea expert at South Korea's Kyungnam University, tells the AP. Xi wants to take the initiative on the North Korean nuclear issue to head off further pressure from Washington, Lim says. Expectations for Song's visit are mixed. In announcing it, China made no mention of Trump's visit to Beijing or the North's weapons programs. Song is not directly connected to China's efforts to convince Pyongyang to return to denuclearization talks, seemingly reducing the chances for a breakthrough in that area.