North Korea diplomat in China amid coal cut tension

Beijing (AFP) - A senior North Korean diplomat arrived in Beijing on Tuesday for talks with government officials, the first known visit since a missile test by Pyongyang that prompted China to sever coal imports from its isolated neighbour.

North Korea's vice foreign minister Ri Kil-Song will be in the country until Saturday to discuss "issues of mutual interest", foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters during a regular press briefing.

Ri will meet with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and other officials, Geng said, calling it a "normal diplomatic exchange."

It is the first known high-level North Korean visit in months and comes amid rising tensions between the two countries over Pyongyang's February 12 missile launch and the subsequent killing of the brother of the North's supreme leader Kim Jong-Un.

South Korea has blamed Kim's government for the killing in Malaysia, which involved the banned VX nerve agent.

Shortly after the murder, China announced it would halt all imports of North Korean coal for the rest of this year, a decision it said was in line with UN sanctions placed on North Korea late last year over its missile and nuclear programmes.

China is the North's sole major ally and by far its largest trading partner.

But in an unusual public attack following the coal decision, North Korean state media last week denounced Beijing for "dancing to the tune of the US."

North Korea blasted off a series of missiles and conducted two nuclear tests in 2016 in its quest to develop a weapons system capable of hitting the US mainland.

The Security Council has imposed six sets of sanctions since Pyongyang first tested an atomic device in 2006.

US President Donald Trump has called on China to do more to rein in North Korea, saying it could easily bring its errant neighbour to heel.

But Beijing denies that, and Geng on Friday urged Washington and Pyongyang to "shoulder their due responsibilities and play their due roles and work together with China to maintain stability" and denuclearise the peninsula.