In this Aug 6, 2017, file photo, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho (left) is greeted by his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi prior to their bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the 50th Asean Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and its Dialogue Partners in Manila, Philippines. (Reuters photo)
BEIJING — China has appointed a new special envoy for the North Korean standoff, the foreign ministry said on Monday, a relatively low-profile diplomat now in charge of Asian affairs, amid renewed international concern over China’s nuclear-armed neighbour.
Concern that North Korea is close to achieving its goal of putting the mainland United States within range of a nuclear weapon has underpinned a spike in tensions in recent months, with US President Donald Trump warning at the weekend that the US military was “locked and loaded” if North Korea acted unwisely.
China’s new envoy, Assistant Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou, 58, is an ethnic Korean from the northeastern Chinese province of Heilongjiang, who has overall responsibility for Asian affairs at the foreign ministry, according to his resume.
He has held senior positions at the Chinese embassy in Japan and from 2011 to 2014 he was China’s ambassador to Vietnam, two countries with which China has often troubled relations.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said that Kong had taken over from previous envoy Wu Dawei, but that there was no connection between the appointment and the current situation on the Korean peninsula.
There would be no change in China’s policy towards the Korean peninsula because of the new appointment, she added. China has always urged dialogue to resolve the crisis.
A Beijing-based foreign diplomat who is familiar with the matter said that Wu, who turns 71 in December, had reached retirement age.
Kong worked alongside current Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi when Wang was Chinese ambassador in Tokyo from 2004-2007.
Asked whether Kong had any immediate plans to visit Pyongyang, spokeswoman Hua said she had no information about that.
North Korea has shown less and less interest in dealing with China diplomatically over its weapons programme or listening to Beijing’s pleas.
Wu visited Pyongyang in February last year, urging restraint after North Korea announced a plan to put a satellite into orbit with a long-range rocket.
Two days after his return to Beijing, North Korea launched the rocket, widely viewed as a ballistic missile test in disguise, further ratcheting up tensions.
Kong is a fairly low-profile diplomat, whose last public engagement was a visit to Mongolia last week.
Other official engagements in recent weeks have been a trip to Nepal and meetings with Sri Lankan and Japanese government officials in Beijing.
Tension on the Korean peninsula eased slightly on Monday as South Korea’s president said resolving the North’s nuclear ambitions must be done peacefully and key US officials played down the risk of an imminent war.
China is North Korea’s closest ally, but it has been infuriated by the North’s repeated missile and nuclear tests and has signed up for increasingly tough UN sanctions on the isolated nation.
However, China says sanctions are not the final way to resolve the issue, and has repeatedly called for a return to diplomacy and the restart of a six-party talks process with North Korea, which includes China, the two Koreas, the United States, Russia and Japan and which collapsed in 2008.