Pyongyang is warming up to Beijing after nuclear test

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Pyongyang is warming up to Beijing after nuclear test

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un watches a men’s basketball match between a North Korean team and the Chinese Olympic team in Pyongyang on May 29 accompanied by party officials including Choe Ryong-hae and his sister Yo-jong. [A CAPTURED IMAGE OF KOREAN CENTRAL TELEVISION]

North Korea is showing signs that it wants to improve ties with China after sowing discord with its last two nuclear tests in 2013 and last January, as demonstrated by the absence of the word “nuclear” in its media reports on North Korean official Ri Su-yong’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing last week.

The first hint of a thaw in relations between the two nations came when Xi sent a congratulatory message to mark the 7th Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the North’s biggest political gathering, which was held for the first time in 36 years. Xi’s kind words were interpreted as a mark of approval for the North’s decision to cancel, or at least hold off, what would have been its fifth nuclear test, which many considered imminent in the run-up to the party congress held between May 6 and May 9.

Then came Kim Jong-un’s hosting of a men’s basketball match between a North Korean team and the Chinese Olympic team on May 29 in Pyongyang, which was Kim’s first China-related event in nearly three years.

It remains unclear, however, whether the recent conciliatory mood could lead to Kim’s first meeting with Xi, who has called for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.

Despite decades of special friendship with Beijing dating all the way back to the reign of Kim Il Sung, the young Kim is widely seen by North Korea observers as antagonistic toward Beijing.

The North’s frustration with China was palpable when the powerful National Defense Commission, chaired by Kim, issued a scathing statement after the strongest-ever UN resolutions were passed in March for its fourth nuclear test in January and long-range missile launch the following month.

In what was seen as a direct reference to China, the North said in its statement that large countries that strive for “a fair international order had lost their minds.”

Kim’s execution in December 2013 of his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, who had deep ties with Communist Party officials in Beijing, also sparked ire among Chinese statesmen.

An intelligence official told the JoongAng Ilbo that Beijing still bears a sense of mistrust toward Pyongyang for its attempt to assassinate Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of Jong-un, by dispatching a killing squad in June 2009.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]

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