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(2nd LD) N.K. deputy nuke envoy visits China: source

All News 18:31 September 07, 2016

(ATTN: UPDATES with more info, background throughout)

SEOUL, Sept. 7 (Yonhap) -- A North Korean deputy nuclear negotiator has arrived in China, a source familiar with North Korean affairs said Wednesday, amid international condemnation over Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs.

Choe Son-hui, the 52-year-old deputy director for North American affairs at North Korea's foreign ministry, arrived in Beijing on Tuesday with an interpreter, the source said without elaborating.

The purpose of her visit to China and details on her itinerary are not immediately known.

Her trip came as the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on Tuesday (New York Time) adopted a statement strongly condemning North Korea's latest ballistic missile tests.

On Monday, North Korea test-fired three mid-range ballistic missiles toward Japan in an apparent show of force in line with the Group of 20 major economies summit meeting held in China.

The UNSC slapped its toughest sanctions on Pyongyang in March for its fourth nuclear test in January and a long-range rocket launch in the following month. Pyongyang conducted nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013.

The six-party talks involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia have been stalled since late 2008 when the North walked away from the negotiation table.

China, the host of the six-party talks and the main ally for North Korea, is under pressure to use its leverage to make Pyongyang give up its nuclear weapons program.

Ties between Pyongyang and Beijing have been frayed as North Korea pushed ahead with nuclear tests despite China's opposition.

Experts said that the North might have sent Choe to China in a bid to break away from isolation amid the tougher sanctions regime.

"If confirmed, Choe's trip seems to aim to seek dialogue with China. The North appears to attempt to break away from international sanctions," said Chang Yong-seok, a researcher at Seoul National University's Institute for Peace and Unification Studies.

Park Ihn-hwi, a professor at Ewha Womans University, said that North Korea may launch a peace offensive toward China at a time when the imposition of the U.N. sanctions is entering its sixth month.

North Korea is believed to face economic hardship as the sanctions cut off the main source of hard currency.

In June, Choe attended a security forum in Beijing where she said that the six-party talks are "dead," dashing hopes that Pyongyang might change its course on its nuclear aspiration.

Analysts said that the latest diplomatic row between South Korea and China over Seoul's move to deploy an advanced U.S. anti-missile system might have prodded China to seek dialogue with Pyongyang.

China has strongly opposed South Korea's plan to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system on its soil, saying that its radar can spy on China, hurting Beijing's strategic interests. Seoul and Washington said that the move is only aimed at countering North Korea's nuclear and missile threats.

President Park Geun-hye defended her country's plan to place the THAAD system during her summit with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hangzhou.

But she also said that there will be no need to have the THAAD system if North Korea's nuclear and missile problems are resolved, according to her office Cheong Wa Dae.

Some experts said that China may seek to send a signal to Seoul and Washington that it could restore its strained relations with its longtime ally North Korea if they push ahead with the THAAD deployment.

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