Blue House denies rift with Beijing

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Blue House denies rift with Beijing

In an effort to quell speculation of severely strained diplomatic ties with China, a top presidential aide said yesterday that Beijing briefed South Korea yesterday morning on the visit of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, and South Korea was the first country to get such a briefing.

“The Chinese government gave a brief about Kim’s trip to the South Korean government around 8 a.m., Beijing time,” said Kim Sung-hwan, senior presidential secretary for foreign affairs and national security. “China has done so because it highly values its relationship with South Korea.”

According to a Blue House source, China gave the briefing to South Korean Ambassador Yu Woo-ik. The official refused to reveal the Chinese official who gave the briefing.

Beijing said that South Korea was the first country to be officially informed about the North Korean leader’s visit, Kim said.

Kim’s remarks came amid growing concerns here about a possible conflict between Seoul and Beijing. China hosted the North Korean leader only three days after President Lee Myung-bak met with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Shanghai, and Seoul voiced its displeasure over the timing of the trip and not being informed in advance. An international probe is ongoing into the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan, and North Korea is suspected of being behind the fatal incident.

President Lee said earlier yesterday that China rescheduled Kim’s trip so it could receive him first.

“It is my understanding that China believed it was inappropriate to meet with North Korea first before meeting with us, thus, it postponed the North Korean leader’s visit by a few days,” Lee was quoted as saying by GNP spokesman Cho Hae-jin during a breakfast meeting with Grand National Party leaders. “The North made numerous requests to China this year to facilitate the trip.”

Blue House senior secretary Kim elaborated on Lee’s remarks. “The Chinese government listened to our position first and then received Kim,” he said. “At the Lee-Hu summit, China first expressed its condolences over the Cheonan incident, and the expression was made publicly while journalists were present. That means China was willing to listen to what our positions are about the Cheonan.”

Therefore, he said, China understood South Korea’s position on the incident when Hu met with Kim.

President Lee also told GNP leaders yesterday that South Korea will inform China about the outcome of the investigation into the Cheonan’s sinking and discuss follow-up measures. “The Chinese government will understand and play a role,” Lee was quoted as saying by the GNP spokesman.

Lee’s remarks appeared to be an attempt to urge Beijing to support Seoul’s position in the handling of the Cheonan’s sinking.

The Blue House also had to do some damage control over a diplomatic spat this week in Seoul. A senior presidential aide told the JoongAng Ilbo that Blue House senior secretary for foreign affairs Kim met with Chinese Ambassador Zhang Xinsen on Thursday to soothe feathers ruffled earlier in the week, when two South Korean ministers complained to him about Kim’s trip. According to the source, Kim asked Zhang not to pay too much attention to media reports that highlight conflicts.

On Tuesday, South Korean Unification Minister Hyun In-taek complained to Zhang about Beijing’s handling of Kim’s trip. Vice Foreign Minister Shin Kak-soo also summoned Zhang on Monday to relay Seoul’s disappointment regarding Kim’s visit.

After the two complaint sessions, China made it clear it was irritated.

By Ser Myo-ja, Seo Seung-wook []

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