High ranking Chinese official to attend N.Korea festivities

BEIJING - China's vice-president, an unusually high ranking official to visit North Korea, will lead a delegation to attend festivities there marking the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War.

Li Yuanchao is China's vice president and a member of the 25-member Politburo, though he is not part of the Politburo Standing Committee, the most elite and powerful body in China's state structures.

His visit, from July 25 to 28, was announced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"This is because of all the new problems that have impacted the relationship between the two countries," said Cai Jian, an expert on North Korea at Fudan University in Shanghai.

Li previously headed the party's influential Organisation Department and was once seen as a contender for the Standing Committee.

China has grown increasingly frustrated with its neighbour and traditional ally after Pyongyang conducted its third nuclear test in February.

The North threatened South Korea and the United States with a nuclear war for weeks in response to toughened UN sanctions imposed after the test, but has since been more conciliatory.

Kim sent an envoy to Beijing in May, but Chinese officials gave him a lukewarm reception, a source with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters, saying Beijing wanted an end to the North's nuclear and missile tests.

Mass games and other festivities marking the end of the 1950-53 Korean war are a major occasion in North Korea, drawing tourists, diplomats and even foreign journalists, who are normally banned.

Li will visit the country from July 25 to 28.

Cai said he expected the two sides to discuss economic reform in the impoverished North as well as denuclearisation. "China has consistently advocated for economic reforms in North Korea," he said.

The last time a similarly high ranking Chinese official visited Pyongyang was in October 2010. Zhou Yongkang, then China's domestic security chief, led a delegation to Pyongyang to attend North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's public debut.