Envoys from the United States and China recently traveled to the Korean peninsula, just days after President Donald Trump wrapped up his first trip to the region. The visits, particularly the journey of a Chinese envoy to North Korea, which Trump has called a “big move,” has raised expectations that efforts toward a diplomatic solution may be gaining some traction.
Song Tao, a special envoy of Chinese President Xi Jinping, met in Pyongyang with senior North Korean officials Saturday. According to North Korea’s state media, the two exchanged views about issues of mutual concern on the situation of the Korean peninsula and region, as well as bilateral relations.
So far, Chinese officials have been tight-lipped about the trip. At a regular press briefing, Monday, China’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that Song Tao is still in North Korea, but provided few new details.
State media reports have portrayed the trip as a routine visit to discuss Beijing’s recently concluded 19th Party Congress. But Song’s journey is the first by a high-ranking Chinese envoy in two years.
Some reports suggested that Song might meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Such a meeting would be a big step, given that relations between the North and China are currently at a historic low, given Pyongyang’s repeated violations of United Nations sanctions and Beijing’s support of some of the toughest sanctions to date.
Analysts in China said the visit was unlikely to change that reality overnight, but they did note some recent positive signs about the overall situation.
Lu Chao, a research fellow at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences said North and South Korea’s response last week to the defection of a North Korean soldier showed considerable restraint.
“In the past, I think this would have been a major incident that could’ve led to a series of escalated conflicts or responses. Yet, both sides stayed calm, which is a good thing,” Lu said.
Lu added that South Korea’s recent approval of the import of mineral water from the North for religious use was also a welcome development.
“With such positive signals, envoy Song Tao’s visit may bring some positive results,” Lu said.
Analysts note that while the tough rhetoric has shown no sign of abating, a two-month lull in nuclear and missile tests could signal that North Korea is considering returning to the negotiating table.
“North Korea has stopped testing further nuclear weapons, also launching missiles. This means that because of the maximization of pressure from international community, and including China and including Washington, North Korea is considering also to make a breakthrough probably by coming to dialogue table,” said Park Taewoo, a visiting professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.
And if that is not what North Korea is considering, Park said it is likely that Song urged Pyongyang to “please come to the dialogue table.”
Pressure on North Korea
But Ahn Chan-il, a head of the World Institute for North Korean Studies, believes the visit is more about putting pressure on Pyongyang. To let the North know that further international sanctions can be avoided if it implements the conditions Donald Trump and Xi Jinping discussed at their recent summit.
North Korea was a key focus during President Donald Trump’s stop in Beijing. Following a summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, the two made clear their opposition to a nuclear armed North Korea and commitment to denuclearization.
"China may have received Trump's messages [more] effectively than at any other time. In this regard, I think [China's envoy] might have brought a message that China cannot always stand by Pyongyang and the era to represent North Korea's position has passed, so it will be difficult for North Korea to survive if it does not change," Ahn said.
Keeping up the pressure was a key message, said Joseph Yun, the United States envoy on the North Korean nuclear issue who visited South Korea last week.
“I think there is no doubt that both presidents want to find a peaceful way in regard to North Korean nuclear issues and so we discussed those,” he said, referring to South Korean President Moon Jae-in and President Trump. “And we really agreed the pressure campaign has to be the central element.”
Key decision coming this week
This week, Trump is expected to decide whether to once again designate North Korea a state-sponsor of terrorism after the February assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s half-brother Kim Jong-nam in the Kuala Lumpur airport.
The U.S. designated North Korea a state-sponsor of terrorism for the 1987 bombing of a South Korean passenger plane that killed more than 100 people. The designation was removed two decades years later after Pyongyang agreed to dismantle its nuclear facilities — a promise it failed to keep.
In addition, the Yonhap News Agency reports that Russia’s top envoy on the North Korean nuclear issue will visit South Korea this week as well to discuss ways to induce Pyongyang to return to negotiations.
As Pyongyang’s relations with Beijing have suffered over the nuclear stand-off, some analysts see Moscow playing a greater role.
In Moscow last month, the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s director of its North American department, Choe Son Hui, made rare public comments on the nuclear issue, describing upholding its programs as a matter of life or death.
Daniel Schearf, Joyce Huang, and Youmi Kim contributed to this report.