World Bulletin / News Desk
Ri Kil-song is believed to be the most senior North Korean official to visit Pyongyang's longtime ally since former Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong traveled to Beijing last May.
The vice minister's trip came at the invitation of China, Beijing's foreign ministry revealed as it confirmed the report by the North's KCNA news agency.
Ri's itinerary includes talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi after Beijing declared a halt to all North Korean coal imports in the wake of the reclusive state's banned ballistic missile test on Feb. 12 -- a major blow for Pyongyang considering the importance of trade with its key economic partner in the face of global sanctions.
The timing of Ri's visit also coincides with the aftermath of the poisoning in Malaysia of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's half-brother, with South Korea spearheading efforts to hold Pyongyang's regime responsible.
But China and the North have other matters of mutual concern, such as this week's acquisition of land by the South Korean government so that an American anti-missile system -- THAAD -- can be deployed on the peninsula as soon as May.
Beijing is strongly opposed to the move, warning the consequences of the deployment rest with Seoul and Washington.
The South's foreign ministry hit back Tuesday by insisting THAAD is "aimed at protecting the country and its people from North Korea's nuclear and missile threats”.
"While keeping a close eye on action being taken by China, we are thoroughly exploring relevant countermeasures," warned ministry spokesman Cho June-hyuck in comments relayed by Yonhap News Agency.
Cho additionally expressed Seoul's hope that North Korea-China ties develop so that Pyongyang abandons its nuclear weapon ambitions and stops "engaging in terrorism”.