Senior North Korea envoy visits Beijing after China coal ban

(This version of the story corrects datline to BEIJING, not SEOUL.)

Ri Kil Song leaves after a meeting with Cambodia's Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation in Phnom Penh in this file photo dated February 4, 2015. REUTERS/Samrang Pring

BEIJING (Reuters) - A senior North Korean diplomat arrived in Beijing on Tuesday for talks, China said, the first such high-level visit since June, after the Asian giant halted coal imports from its impoverished neighbour this month under U.N. sanctions.

North Korea’s main diplomatic ally said it would ban coal imports about a week after the isolated country tested an intermediate-range ballistic missile, for the first time since U.S. President Donald Trump took office.

The North’s Vice Foreign Minister Ri Kil Song arrived in Beijing at the invitation of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and will hold talks with his host, the Chinese foreign ministry said.

“This visit of the North Korean vice foreign minister is normal diplomatic contact and exchange between China and North Korea,” foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a regular briefing.

Ri will meet other Chinese diplomats, including vice foreign minister Liu Zhenmin, on the visit set to run until March 4, Geng added.

North Korea’s state-run KCNA news agency confirmed the visit.

South Korea’s foreign ministry said it was aware Ri would be travelling to China but did not elaborate, and declined to comment when asked if the visit might be related to the killing of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s estranged half-brother.

Before he was killed at the Kuala Lumpur airport on Feb. 13, Kim Jong Nam lived quietly in the Asian gambling hub of Macau, a Chinese territory, avoiding controversy and seemingly relaxed about personal safety, sources close to him have said.

Tuesday’s visit is the first such trip since one in June by Ri Su Yong, a member of the politburo of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party, who met Chinese President Xi Jinping.

It comes in the wake of a rare reproach North Korea issued to China, saying it was “dancing to the tune” of the United States for halting coal imports over the North’s nuclear and missile programmes.

The move aimed to comply with U.N. sanctions imposed after nuclear tests by the North, the latest of which took place in September.

In a Reuters interview, Trump said he welcomed China’s ban, but Beijing could solve the challenge posed by the North “very easily if they want to,” turning up pressure on China to do more.

China later dismissed the renewed pressure from Trump over its role in North Korea, saying the crux of the matter was a dispute between Washington and Pyongyang.

Reporting by Jack Kim and Ju-min Park in Seoul and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Clarence Fernandez