Story highlights

China's top diplomat visits the US

North Korea is likely to top agenda

CNN  — 

Beijing’s point man on foreign policy arrives in the US Monday and likely comes bearing a message for the Trump administration: It’s time to talk with North Korea.

State Councillor Yang Jiechi, often described as China’s top diplomat, comes at the invitation of the US government, state news agency Xinhua reported.

He’s the most senior Chinese official to visit the US since President Donald Trump took office and his two-day trip comes as tensions bristle with North Korea and its neighbors.

Its nuclear weapons program is advancing and the regime is suspected of assassinating the estranged brother of leader Kim Jong Un.

Kim Jong Nam death investigation_00002905.jpg
Police say Kim Jong Nam killed by nerve agent
02:54 - Source: CNN

“My speculation is that Yang will try and persuade the US government to be open to talks,” said Tong Zhao, an associate at the Carnegie Tsinghua Center for Global Policy.

Beijing, North Korea’s only real ally and economic benefactor, has long advocated diplomatic talks but Washington has stayed focused on sanctions, with Trump repeatedly saying China isn’t doing enough to rein in its unruly neighbor.

But Yang’s trip comes after a potential change in dynamics.

Earlier this month, China said it had banned North Korean coal imports for the rest of this year – a move that was widely interpreted as a cooperative gesture to the new administration and as a way to shift pressure to act back on Washington.

Coal is North Korea’s main export and an important source of foreign currencies for its fragile economy.

China’s move will test whether Trump really is willing to do something about North Korea’s nukes – the President has vowed to deal with North Korea and his administration is conducting a policy review.

On the campaign trail, Trump even said he would speak to Kim Jong Un.

This photo taken on March 29, 2016 shows imported coal being unloaded from a cargo ship at a port in Lianyungang, east China's Jiangsu province. 
Huge industrial overcapacity will drag on China's growth this year, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) said on March 30 as it cut its forecast for the world's second-largest economy. / AFP / STR / China OUT        (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
China cuts coal imports from North Korea
01:45 - Source: CNN


However, North Korea’s most recent provocations make any kind of US outreach difficult.

After a lull in activity that coincided with Trump’s election win, it launched a new type of missile as Trump met with Japan’s leader Shinzo Abe on February 12.

And just when it seemed nothing could make North Korea’s international standing any worse, it assassinated the estranged older brother of leader Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong Nam, at Kuala Lumpur airport, on February 13.

Informal talks scheduled for next week, between a North Korean delegation and a team of former US officials, have been canceled after the Trump administration revoked visas.

Even though the government wouldn’t have taken part, the talks could have signaled that the new administration was more open to US engagement with North Korea, said Zhao.

“There was hope in China that the talks would happen,” he said.

The last-minute withdrawal of the approval of the visas came hours after the Malaysian government announced that Kim Jong Nam was killed with VX nerve agent. The extremely toxic chemical is classified as a weapon of mass destruction by the United Nations.

KUWAIT CITY, KUWAIT - DECEMBER 13: Czech soldiers in chemical protection suits take part in a chemical attack response drill conducted at the U.S. Embassy by civil defense authorities and troops from the United States, Germany, and Czech Republic December 13, 2002 in Kuwait City, Kuwait. The exercise, dubbed 'Event Horizon,' was staged to test the coordinated emergency response to a mock attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait by terrorists using deadly sarin nerve gas.
What are nerve agents like Novichok and how do they kill?
01:34 - Source: CNN

China’s beef with North Korea

Beijing has backed Pyongyang since the two fought together in the Korean War.

However, relations between the countries have been frosty since Kim Jong Un succeeded his late father as dictator, promptly purging several key government figures – such as his uncle Jang Song Thaek – with strong ties to China.

The murder of the Kim Jong Nam, who was living in China and advocated Chinese-style economic reforms, is likely to have further soured ties.

And the coal ban triggered a rare public attack from North Korea, which mocked its ally for “dancing to the tune of the US” and promising to continue its nuclear program.

But while China may be fed up with North Korea, that doesn’t mean China is ready – or able – to rein in its unruly neighbor or coax it to the negotiating table on terms the US would approve of.

Beijing is opposed to any scenario where the regime topples – leading to a massive influx of refugees and potentially US troops on China’s doorstep.

Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) is also skeptical that China’s coal ban is really that and says that China could still do more damage to its neighbor.

“US and Chinese priorities do not match up on North Korea,” he said. “And I haven’t seen anything that suggests China is taking a different approach.”