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China to Send High-Ranking Official to North Korea

The Chinese government on Wednesday announced it was sending Vice President Li Yuanchao to North Korea this week, signaling an improvement in bilateral relations which soured in the last year and a half when Pyongyang carried out a number of nuclear weapon-related tests, the Associated Press reported.

Beijing has not sent any officials of Li's stature since the death of former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il at the end of 2011. Li will likely meet with Pyongyang ruler Kim Jong Un during his trip, which is to last from Thursday to Sunday and is timed to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, according to AP.

The two sides are expected to discuss China's desire to see North Korea return to regional negotiations aimed at shuttering Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program. The six-party talks encompass China, Japan, North and South Korea, Russia and the United States; the aid-for-denuclearization negotiations have not been held since December 2008.

As the North's biggest economic benefactor, Beijing is seen by Washington as having the greatest influence over Pyongyang's actions. The Obama administration has attempted to convince China to closely coordinate its policy on dealing with North Korea's nuclear work. However, the Asian power is seen as having its own geopolitical reasons for maintaining support of the Kim regime.

"China is bound to adjust its North Korean policies, but it doesn't mean Beijing will side with the U.S., Japan and South Korea," Chinese foreign policy expert Ren Xiao wrote in an analysis for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

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