China-North Korea ties get some momentum

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China-North Korea ties get some momentum

North Korea managed to take the chill off relations with China after a meeting between North Korean senior envoy Ri Su-yong and Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday.

But they clearly don’t see eye-to-eye on the issue of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, as official reports of the meeting in the two nations’ state-run media indicated.

North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency emphasized in its report that Ri, vice chairman of the central committee of the North’s Workers’ Party, conveyed to Xi the intention of Pyongyang to simultaneously pursue economic and nuclear development.

Despite international sanctions that continue to strengthen, Pyongyang adhered to its position that it will not give up its nuclear arsenal.

This was not mentioned in Chinese state media reports.

Xi and Ri met for just 20 minutes in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Wednesday, and the Chinese leader called for restraint from all related parties in the region, without specifically mentioning denuclearization.

The meeting was significant because it was the first time the Chinese president held talks with a senior North Korean official since Choe Ryong-hae, now part of the five-member presidium of the political bureau of the Workers’ Party central committee, visited Beijing in May 2013 as Kim Jong-un’s special envoy.

Ri delivered a letter to Xi from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who expressed a desire to bolster traditional friendly relations between the two countries and explained the results of the Workers’ Party’s seventh congress last month.

There is speculation that Kim may be working to arrange his first summit with Xi since he took power after the death of his father in December 2011. The meeting may take place either in the latter half of this year or early next year if things go smoothly.

The North Korean delegation also requested one million tons of food from Beijing, according to a source.

“The North Korean Workers’ Party delegation requested 1 million tons in food supply,” a high-ranking source in Beijing who requested anonymity told the JoongAng Ilbo on Wednesday, “but China said that it can provide less than 500,000 tons.”

One South Korean official pointed out that North Korea needs a total food supply of 4.8 million tons annually and that it is estimated to fall short by up to 400,000 tons this year.

Ri kicked off a surprise trip to China on Tuesday, accompanied by a North Korean delegation of some 40 officials in what appeared to be Pyongyang’s attempt to patch up diplomatic relations with its longtime ally and benefactor.

The career diplomat concluded his three-day visit to Beijing on Friday and returned to Pyongyang.

While Ri’s talks with Xi may not have been abundantly fruitful, analysts point out it could give bilateral relations some positive momentum.

“President Xi Jinping met Ri Su-yong to keep the United States in check, flaunting its influence on North Korea after President Barack Obama traveled to Vietnam and Japan and exerted pressure on Beijing,” China expert Kim Heung-kyu, a political science professor at Ajou University, told the JoongAng Ilbo on Thursday.

“President Xi, through his meeting with Ri and his delegation, will have conveyed a message to Kim Jong-un to refrain from armed provocations and to delay development of its nuclear program. Xi’s bright expression shows that he must have conveyed China’s message fully.”

He added that “if Kim Jong-un meets Xi’s requests, the sanctions against North Korea may suddenly turn into a route for dialogue.”

Next week, the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue will be held in Beijing, where the North Korea nuclear issue will likely be discussed between top officials of the two countries. The 15-member UN Security Council in a joint statement Wednesday strongly condemned three recently failed North Korean missile launches and demanded Pyongyang “refrain from further actions, including nuclear tests, in violation of the relevant Security Council resolutions.”

Following its fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6, North Korea conducted a long-range missile launch in February and a series of other ballistic missile tests.

The council, which includes veto-power wielders China and Russia, expressed “serious concern” that North Korea conducted a series of further ballistic missile tests after launches on April 15 and 23, “in flagrant disregard of the repeated statements of the Security Council.” It called on countries to “redouble their efforts to implement fully the measures imposed.

“President Xi Jinping in his talks with Ri Si-yong said that China’s position on the issue of the Korean Peninsula is consistent and clear,” South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Cho June-hyuck told reporters on Thursday, explaining that “Beijing, as a Security Council permanent member, will not allow North Korea to posses nuclear weapons.”

“China’s firm position is made clear through the statement adopted by the Security Council,” Cho said. “The statement came during Ri’s visit to China, which shows China has a grounded position on North Korea’s provocations and violations of UN Security Council resolutions.”

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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