One of China’s top leaders will lead a delegation to North Korea this week

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BEIJING (AP) — A top Chinese leader will lead a delegation to North Korea this week, both countries announced Tuesday, in what would be the highest-level meeting between the two countries since the pandemic began.

Zhao Leji, who is chairman of the National People’s Congress and considered the No. 3 official in the ruling Communist Party, will visit North Korea from Thursday to Saturday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said.

No details were released on what was described as a goodwill visit, except that the delegation would attend the opening ceremony for the “China-North Korea Friendship Year.”

“The specific arrangements for the visit are still under negotiation,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said.

A dispatch from North Korea’s official KCNA news agency also announced the trip.

Zhao is one of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the Communist Party’s top leadership body headed by Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Zhao’s visit to North Korea will be the first bilateral exchange involving a Chinese Politburo Standing Committee member since the pandemic started. In 2019, the two countries held a pair of summit meetings, for one of which Xi traveled to Pyongyang.

North Korea and China are expected to hold a number of exchanges to mark the 75th year since they established of diplomatic ties, according to South Korea’s Unification Ministry.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been pushing to boost partnerships with China and Russia in a bid to strength his regional footing and join a united front against the United States.

Kim traveled to Russia in September for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The U.S., South Korea and others accuse North Korea of supplying conventional weapons for Russia’s war in Ukraine in return for advanced weapons technologies and other support.

China, North Korea’s biggest source of aid, is believed to have long shipped clandestine assistance to help keep afloat its impoverished socialist ally, which it views as a bulwark against U.S. influence on the Korean Peninsula.

“China is key to North Korea’s economy. There is a limit that Russia can do for North Korea economically,” Park Won Gon, a professor at Seoul’s Ewha Womans University. “For the short-term assistance, shipments of food or crude oil can be made. But to make its economy grow in the long term, North Korea needs investments and markets. China is the only country that can provide those to North Korea.” ___

Associated Press writer Jiwon Song in Seoul, South Korea contributed to this report.

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