High-ranking Chinese diplomat to visit North Korea

BEIJING — China said Wednesday that a high-ranking diplomat plans to travel to Pyongyang later this week amid a flurry of diplomacy following North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's surprise visit to Beijing.

Song Tao, who heads the ruling Communist Party's International Department, will lead an art troupe to Pyongyang on Friday to attend an arts festival, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters at a regularly scheduled briefing.

Following Kim's visit to Beijing, the trip "serves as an important cultural exchange activity to implement the significant consensuses reached by the top leaders," Geng said.

"We believe this visit will help improve friendly relations and deepen cultural exchanges between the two countries," he said.

Geng said Song had been invited by the International Department of North Korea's ruling Worker's Party. He gave no details about any officials Song would meet.

Kim made an unannounced trip to Beijing last month ahead of potentially breakthrough meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump.

The trip, during which he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, was Kim's first since taking power six years ago, and was considered an attempt to repair traditionally warm ties with China that have deteriorated over the North's development of ballistic missile and nuclear weapons technology and China's enforcement of United Nations economic sanctions.

China is the North's most important trading partner, although trade has fallen drastically under the sanctions, taking a major toll on the country's ailing economy.

Kim's diplomatic moves could have a major impact on the direction the country takes in the months and possibly years ahead. Following his summit with Xi, Kim dispatched his foreign minister to Moscow, reportedly exploring the possibility of a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

China has long advocated a return to six-nation talks it hosted on the nuclear issue and appears anxious not to be sidelined by the North's new outreach to other players in that long-stalled process.

Song visited Pyongyang in November, becoming the last high-level Chinese official to do so.

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