A top ranking Chinese official reaffirmed ties with North Korea during a meeting in Pyongyang on Saturday with the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, China’s state media reported, in the highest-level talks between the allies in years.

The visit by Zhao Leji, who ranks third in the ruling Communist party hierarchy and heads the ceremonial parliament, came as North Korea has test-fired missiles to intimidate South Korea and its ally, the US.

The Xinhua news agency reported that Zhao told Kim at the meeting concluding his three-day visit that China, North Korea’s most important source of economic aid and diplomatic support, looked forward to further developing ties, but made no mention of the political situation on the peninsula or the region.

Since the establishment of diplomatic ties 75 years ago, China and North Korea have been “good neighbours and struggled together to attain a common destiny and level of development”, Xinhua quoted Zhao as saying.

China fought on behalf of the reclusive communist state against the US and others during the 1950-1953 Korean war, and in recent years has helped prop up its weak economy, allegedly in violation of UN sanctions in response to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme, which Beijing had endorsed.

Zhao met his North Korean counterpart Choe Ryong-hae on Thursday and discussed how to promote exchanges and cooperation in all areas, the official North Korean central news agency reported.

North Korea closed its borders during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic amid reports of a major outbreak and food shortages. Zhao’s visit to North Korea marked the first bilateral exchange involving a Chinese politburo standing committee member since the pandemic started. Prior to the outbreak, Kim and Chinese president Xi Jinping held two summits in 2019.

North Korea and China are expected to hold a number of exchanges this year to mark the anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties. North Korea has sought to boost its cooperation with Beijing and Russia in the face of a standoff with the US and South Korea over its missile launches and nuclear programme.

Kim travelled to Russia in September for a summit with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. The US, South Korea and others accuse North Korea of supplying conventional weapons for Russia’s war in Ukraine in return for advanced weapons technologies and other support.

China has refused to criticise the Russian invasion and has accused the US and Nato of provoking Moscow, but says it will not provide Moscow with direct military support.

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