China is the North’s most important economic and political partner, but has signed on to United Nations economic sanctions aimed at pressuring leader Kim Jong Un to abandon his drive to develop nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles to deliver them.
Kim sharply raised tensions with nuclear and missile tests last year, but suddenly reached out to South Korea and the United States this year with a vague nuclear disarmament pledge.
North Korea is now seeking security guarantees from the US and relief from international sanctions.
Ri is also expected to be briefed on discussions last week between Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Donald Trump, who recently announced that his next meeting with Kim would likely happen in January or February.
Despite the optimism among some circles generated by Kim and Trump’s June summit meeting in Singapore, little has transpired since then.
At the time, some experts said the United States could soon accept a North Korean request for jointly declaring the end of the 1950-53 Korean War as part of security assurances to the North.
But diplomacy has since come to a halt amid disputes over a US demand that North Korea first produce a full inventory of its nuclear weapons and take other denuclearisation steps before winning significant outside rewards.
For its part, North Korea wants sanctions relief, an end-of-war declaration and other reciprocal measures from the United States, arguing it has taken some steps, like dismantling its nuclear testing facility and releasing American detainees.
China fought on North Korea’s behalf during the Korean War, and while ties have grown frosty at times, Xi hosted Kim for three summits in China this year, both before and after Kim’s meeting with Trump.
However, Xi did not attend celebrations of the 70th anniversary of North Korea’s founding in September in what was seen as an indication that Beijing expected further actions from Kim, including concrete progress toward denuclearisation.
Ri’s visit also comes amid intense speculation over the possibility that Kim will visit South Korea this month.
No North Korean leader has travelled to South Korea since the end of the Korean War, which killed millions.
There have been five summit talks between the leaders of the Koreas, three of them between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, but they all happened either in Pyongyang or the inter-Korean border village of Panmunjom.