BEIJING (Reuters) – Chinese President Hu Jintao on Monday nudged his visiting South Korean counterpart to seek better ties with North Korea, the official Xinhua news agency reported, ahead of meetings between envoys to discuss the North’s nuclear programme.
Lee Myung-bak’s visit to Beijing has been overshadowed by questions about how the two sides will grapple with North Korea, where the death last month of long-time leader Kim Jong-il fanned worries about fresh regional confrontation as his successor, Kim Jong-un, consolidates power.
President Hu, whose government is the North’s sole major backer, told Lee stability was his paramount concern.
Hu said “China will continue to support the improvement of relations” between the two sides of the divided Korean peninsula, Xinhua reported.
“It is in line with the interests of all parties concerned to safeguard the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula,” he said. China is also willing to enhance communication and coordination with all relevant parties and make “unremitting efforts in this respect,” Xinhua reported in English.
“China hopes the parties concerned will have more moves that help promote peace and stability on the peninsula,” Hu said.
The Chinese leader’s reported remarks shed no new light on how Beijing sees the transition in Pyongyang, where Kim Jong-il was succeeded by his untested and largely unknown youngest son, Kim Jong-un. But Hu’s comments underscored Beijing’s focus on avoiding fresh flare-ups on the peninsula.
Some analysts have speculated the young Kim may order a “provocation,” such as a small-scale military attack or nuclear or missile test, to burnish a hardline image with the North’s powerful military, whose support is crucial to him.
Earlier, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported Lim Sung-nam, Seoul’s top nuclear envoy, would meet Chinese counterpart Wu Dawei during Lee’s trip to discuss denuclearising the North.
The South has also said its main foreign policy goal this year is maintaining stability on the peninsula as its unpredictable neighbor embarks on a third generation of dynastic rule following Kim Jong-il’s death last month.
But Beijing has also faced growing wariness from neighbors over its military modernization and strategic intentions, especially over North Korea, a problem acknowledged by a leading Chinese newspaper.
“Particularly with China’s rapid development altering the relative balance of power between the two sides, problems have arisen in Chinese-South Korean relations that need urgent attention,” said the overseas edition of the People’s Daily, the official paper of China’s ruling Communist Party.
“Above all there is the problem of mutual political trust,” said a front-page commentary in the paper by Zhang Liangui, a prominent Chinese expert on Korean affairs.
Seoul’s ambassador to China, Lee Kyu-hyung, recently said the South would continue to raise the issue of China’s unwillingness to condemn North Korea when it provokes the South.
Although Beijing and Seoul share broad aims on the divided Korean peninsula, Zhang said, “their different interests and positions have produced a negative impact on bilateral relations.
Lee angered Pyongyang by cutting off aid to its impoverished neighbor when he took office in 2008, demanding nuclear disarmament and economic reform as preconditions to reopen food assistance and political engagement.
Tensions on the Korean peninsula rose in 2010 when the North launched an artillery barrage into a South Korean island, killing civilians. The North was also blamed for a torpedo attack against a South Korean navy ship that killed 46 sailors.
North and South Korea are technically still at war under a truce ending the 1950-53 Korean War.
TRADE TALKS FLAGGED
Lee’s three-day visit began after Chinese media flagged the prospect of trade pact talks in coming months, holding out closer economic ties as a way to narrow political distrust.
The China Daily said the two sides are considering negotiations for a three-way free trade agreement including Japan, and a separate China-South Korea trade agreement.
An unidentified source from China’s Ministry of Commerce told the paper the China-South Korea bilateral trade pact talks “will probably start in the first half of the year.”
Marking the start of the talks, Lee noted the “rapid” development of relations between South Korea and China “in all spheres” since formal ties were established 20 years ago.
Despite Beijing’s political support for North Korea, Chinese economic ties with South Korea are much larger.
In the first 11 months of 2011, China’s trade with the South was worth $224.8 billion, a rise of 19.5 percent on the same period in 2010, according to Chinese customs data. Its trade with North Korea was worth $5.2 billion in the first 11 months of 2011.
Since 2008, South Korea and China have conducted joint studies on their possible free trade deal.