The highest-level Chinese envoy to North Korea in two years has held meetings in the country’s capital to try to improve relations that have soured over Beijing’s tightening of sanctions.

Song Tao’s official mission starting on Friday is to brief North Korean officials on the outcome of China’s ruling Communist Party congress held last month.

He is visiting as President Xi Jinping’s special envoy, according to Chinese and North Korean state media, but no other details about his itinerary or whether he will meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have been announced.

After arriving, Mr Song met with Choe Ryong Hae, a vice chairman of the ruling party and one of the most senior leaders after Kim.

Song Tao, the head of China's ruling Communist Party's International Liaison Department, speaks with Choe Ryong Hae Song Tao, the head of China’s ruling Communist Party’s International Liaison Department, speaks with Choe Ryong Hae (Kim Kwang Hyon/AP)

During their meeting on Friday, Mr Song briefed Mr Choe on the developments from the Communist Party congress and also gave him an unspecified gift for Mr Kim, Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency said.

The agency said Mr Song also stressed the Communist Party’s stance to further build on the “traditional friendly relationship” between the countries and their ruling parties.

The visit is seen as an effort by Mr Xi to explore a new approach in relations and likely also reflects Mr Xi’s desire to head off further pressure from Washington.

China’s relations with North Korea have deteriorated under Mr Kim, who has ignored Beijing’s calls to end the North’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests and return to disarmament talks.

North Korea staged its sixth nuclear test on September 3, detonating what it said was a hydrogen bomb, and most recently launched a ballistic missile on September 15, firing it over the Japanese island of Hokkaido into the Pacific Ocean.

China, North Korea’s largest trading partner, says its influence with Mr Kim’s government is often exaggerated by the US and others.

Choe Ryong Hae, centre, vice-chairman of the Central Committee of North Korea's ruling party, speaks with visiting Song TaoChoe Ryong Hae, centre, vice-chairman of the Central Committee of North Korea’s ruling party, speaks with visiting Song Tao (Kim Kwang Hyon/AP)

Beijing is opposed to measures that could bring down Mr Kim’s regime and lead to a refugee crisis along its border, and while enforcing harsh new UN sanctions targeting North Korea’s sources of foreign currency it has called for steps to renew dialogue.

The visit comes as Joseph Yun, the US envoy for North Korea, met on Friday with his South Korean counterpart Lee Do-hoon on the resort island of Jeju in South Korea.

“China, of course, has a big role to play on Northeast Asia security issues,” Mr Yun was quoted by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency as saying, adding that he hopes China “regards the denuclearisation as a critical goal. We do hope that special envoy will forward that goal”.

Mr Song’s visit to North Korea also comes as China and South Korea are repairing their relations that soured over Seoul’s deployment of a US anti-missile system.

South Korean president Moon Jae-in is to visit China next month for talks with Mr Xi.

Song is the first ministerial-level Chinese official to visit North Korea since October 2015, when Politburo Standing Committee member Liu Yunshan delivered a letter to Mr Kim from Mr Xi expressing hopes for a strong relationship, although the respite in frosty ties proved short-lived. Vice foreign minister Liu Zhenmin visited Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, in October last year.

Mr Song heads the Communist Party’s International Department.