China's top envoy to Pyongyang to return home after Covid delay

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China's top envoy to Pyongyang to return home after Covid delay

Chinese Ambassador to North Korea Li Jinjun will leave Pyongyang following a seven-year stint, according to the North's state media Thursday, with his departure having been delayed apparently due to tight border control to stave off the Covid-19 pandemic.
China reportedly appointed Wang Yajun, a senior party official, as Li's successor in February. The replacement has been postponed, however, amid a strict lockdown by the North, which claims to be coronavirus free.
Li met with Choe Ryong-hae, a member of the North Korean ruling party's politburo presidium, and other ranking officials at the Mansudae Assembly Hall in Pyongyang for a farewell, the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said. It did not mention exactly when the ambassador will return home.
The KCNA report has rekindled keen attention on whether and when the two countries will resume senior-level exchanges that have long been disrupted by the virus situation.
Ji Jae-ryong, Pyongyang's former ambassador to Beijing, is also known to be staying in China due to the border control. His successor Ri Ryong-nam began his duty in April.
The North was seen preparing to reopen its land border with China. South Korea's spy agency had said its cross-border rail services may resume as early as November. But the global spread of the Omicron variant has apparently put the brakes on the plan.
"We have to see if Li's return leads to an entry to North Korea by his successor or Ji's entry before speaking [publicly] if it represents a sign of resumption in their exchanges," an official at Seoul's Unification Ministry said.
The Seoul government is also looking into the possibility that Li belatedly returned home due to a health issue. Li is known to be suffering from complications of diabetes.
In a message delivered via Choe, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un praised Li's contribution to North Korea-China ties which have "entered a fresh heyday," and said he hopes the ambassador would make steady efforts to develop the friendly relations "in good health."
"[Li] expressed his will to continue to strive for further developing the friendly relations between the two countries that have entered a new era," the KCNA said.
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