NK envoy-Beijing arrival

BEIJING, May 22 (Yonhap) -- A special envoy of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un arrived in Beijing on Wednesday, a trip that comes at a time of strained ties between North Korea and China.

Choe Ryong-hae, the director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People's Army, touched down at a Beijing airport on an Air Koryo flight from Pyongyang as of 10:30 a.m. (local time) and was escorted to the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse.

China News Service said the envoy met with Wang Jiarui, the head of the Communist Party of China's (CPC) central committee's external affairs department, shortly after his arrival, although no details of the talks were announced.

Diplomatic sources in Beijing predicted Choe, who holds the rank of vice marshal, will meet Chinese President Xi Jinping later in the week, along with senior officials from the military, CPC and the government, with close talks expected to take place with Yang Jiechi, the working-level head of China's foreign policy team. He is expected to stay in the Chinese capital for three to four days.

Earlier in the day, the North's state media reported Choe headed for Beijing as a special envoy of Kim, without giving details, including the agenda and his itinerary.

Choe is the most senior North Korean official to visit China since Kim's uncle Jang Song-thaek made a trip in August. Jang is currently vice chairman of the country's powerful National Defense Commission.

Choe, who had been a career official of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) until switching to the army in 2010, is considered a close confidant of the North Korean leader and is often seen in Kim's company when he conducts on-site inspections within the country.

He is the third-highest-ranking official in the North's official hierarchy after Kim Jong-un and Kim Yong-nam, the president of the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA) Presidium.

Choe's visit comes as bilateral relations have cooled in recent months after the North ignored repeated calls from Beijing not to ratchet up tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Defying warnings by China, the North went ahead with the launching of two long-range rockets last year and detonated its third nuclear device in February.

In response, Beijing allowed the U.N. Security Council to pass sanction resolutions in March and has taken steps to clamp down on financial transactions between the two countries that is expected to hurt the North.

The visit also comes as South Korea's President Park Geun-hye is expected to go to Beijing next month for her first summit meeting with Chinese leaders. U.S. President Barack Obama is scheduled to meet Xi on June 7-8.

North Korea watchers in Seoul said Choe's sudden visit could affect relations across Northeast Asia that have witnessed a spike in tensions with joint South Korea-U.S. military exercises and the temporary suspension of an inter-Korean factory complex in the North.

The North Korean leader may have picked Choe because both his parents fought against Japanese troops along side a Chinese partisan force during Tokyo's colonial rule over the region in the first half of the 20th century, they said.

"Choe's father was quite famous, and this could allow him to gain acceptance among older generation Chinese leaders who still have strong feelings for their communist brothers in the North," a source said.

Others said that the visit could allow North Korea and China to sit down for talks and try to deal with present developments.

"It may be the start of policies that can ease tensions and lead to dialogue," said Lee Nam-joo, a professor at Sungkonghoe University. "The envoy should be able to help reduce tensions which have reached unprecedented levels recently."

This view is shared by Yang Moo-jin, a political science professor at the University of North Korean Studies.

"Pyongyang may seek to highlight the close 'blood alliance' that existed between the two countries and seek an outlet for inter-Korea talks as well as dialogue with the United States," he said.

With Washington and Beijing expected to touch on North Korea at an upcoming summit meeting, the envoy can explain to China the North's position, which may open new dialogue channels not only between Pyongyang and Washington but between South and North Korea, Yang said.

China has been pushing for inter-Korean talks and a greater role in diffusing tensions.

North Korean experts added that what kind of message Choe delivers to China will determine if the overall situation changes on the Korean Peninsula.

"The envoy will probably elaborate and try to justify Kim Jong-un's policy line of simultaneously pushing forward economic construction and the building of its nuclear force," said an observer, adding that Pyongyang may try to explain its provocative actions taken this year.

Related to the message that may be conveyed, Choi Myeong-hae, a senior researcher at the Samsung Economic Research Institute, said if Pyongyang makes demands that are unacceptable to Washington "then it may take time for meaningful dialogue to take place."

Inter-Korean tensions remain high though the North has toned down its bellicose rhetoric against the South and the U.S. in recent weeks, following the end of South Korean-U.S. military exercises.

In its latest show of force, North Korea has launched a total of six short-range projectiles into the East Sea since Saturday. Pyongyang claimed the launches were part of a military exercise.

Pyongyang has spurned Seoul's repeated calls for dialogue to resolve a standoff over the industrial park in the North's border city of Kaesong, which was the last remaining symbol of inter-Korean rapprochement.

The factory park, a combination of Seoul's capital and technology and North Korea's cheap labor, ground to a halt in early April as Pyongyang pulled all its workers from 123 South Korean companies there.

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