A special envoy of Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit North Korea later this week, official media said Wednesday, amid an unusual pause in the unpredictable neighbor's saber-rattling since it fired a ballistic missile over Japan two months ago.
This will be the first known visit by a high-ranking Chinese official to North Korea in more than a year. The Communist Party's International Department said its head, Song Tao, will leave for Pyongyang on Friday.
Official media in both countries reported the visit of Song, suggesting that it is well coordinated and deemed significant by both sides.
But they provided no details other than saying that the purpose of his visit is to inform North Korea of the results of the Chinese ruling party's twice-a-decade congress held late last month. It is not clear how long Song is planning to stay in North Korea.
The special envoy's visit comes days after Donald Trump's first trip to Beijing as the U.S. president, during which he and Xi agreed to strengthen cooperation in dealing with North Korea's nuclear and missile threats.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said he is not aware of the specifics of Song's schedule, including with whom he will meet, and stressed that he is a special envoy of the party's General Secretary Xi and the main objective is to provide information on the congress.
Geng told a regular press briefing that Song will also likely "exchange views on matters of mutual concern" between the two parties and the two countries, without elaborating.
Song has already visited Vietnam and Laos for the same purpose, in keeping with Chinese protocol to send a high-ranking party official to other Communist-ruled countries after key political events.
But Song's trip to North Korea would be the first known visit to that country by a senior Chinese official since late October last year, when Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin traveled there.
As Song is a special envoy of Xi, he could meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during his stay in Pyongyang.
Kim sent a congratulatory message to Xi on his re-election on Oct. 25 as leader of the Communist Party and expressed hope of developing ties with China.
No high-ranking official from China has met with the North Korean leader in about two years.
In October 2015, Liu Yunshan, the Communist Party's then fifth-ranked leader, held talks with Kim and watched a huge military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party. He also presented a letter from Xi to Kim.
Liu was China's most senior official to visit North Korea since Kim inherited power following the death of his father in late 2011.
At that time, Liu's visit fueled speculation of a thaw in a bilateral relationship strained for years by Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs.
But the situation has remained the same since Liu's visit.
North Korea has not shown any sign of discontinuing its quest to develop a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland.
Still, North Korea has refrained from conducting any major arms test since Sept. 15, when it fired a missile that crossed Japan before landing in the northern Pacific Ocean, covering a distance enough to have reached the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam if launched in that direction.
Trump and Xi agreed last week to keep imposing U.N. sanctions on North Korea until Pyongyang abandons its nuclear arms program.
"We agreed on the need to fully implement all U.N. Security Council resolutions on North Korea and to increase economic pressure until North Korea abandons its reckless and dangerous path," Trump said at a joint news conference with Xi after their meeting on Thursday.
While China has been under increasing pressure from the United States and its allies to do more to rein North Korea, Xi also repeated Beijing's long-held position that the nuclear issue must be solved through dialogue and negotiation.