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(News Focus) N. Korea, China try to mend ties, but questions persist about nuclear standoff

All News 22:00 June 01, 2016

By Kim Deok-hyun

BEIJING, June 1 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Chinese President Xi Jinping signaled their intention on Wednesday to repair traditionally strong ties that have been hurt by Pyongyang's nuclear ambition, but questions remain about how Beijing could curb the neighbor's effort to build up its weapons of mass destruction arsenal.

In a surprise diplomatic overture, Xi met a visiting high-level North Korean delegation, led by Ri Su-yong, vice chairman of the North Korean ruling party's central committee, in Beijing and Ri conveyed Kim's message to Xi that he wants to "strengthen and develop the bilateral traditional friendship," China's official Xinhua news agency said.

Xi said he "highly values the friendly cooperative relations" with North Korea and China "is willing to work with the DPRK (North Korea) to properly maintain, consolidate and develop bilateral ties," according to the media report.

The Chinese president also called for calm and restraint on the Korean Peninsula, but the report made no mention of North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

The meeting between Xi and Ri, who arrived in Beijing on Tuesday for a three-day visit, followed months of heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula after North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test in January.

China, North Korea's diplomatic and economic lifeline, voted in favor of tougher U.N. sanctions against the North's latest nuclear test, but protected the traditional ally from the harshest sanctions.

Many analysts believe that China is unlikely to put crippling sanctions on North Korea because a sudden collapse of the Pyongyang regime could spark a refugee crisis at its border and lead to a pro-U.S. and democratic Korea on its doorstep.

North Korea wrapped up a rare party congress last month that bolstered Kim's grip on power and enshrined his policy of simultaneously pursuing both economic development and nuclear advancement.

The official purpose of Ri's visit to Beijing is aimed at briefing Xi and other Chinese officials on the results of the North Korean party congress.

Chang Yong-seok, a senior researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University, said North Korea was unlikely to change its course on its nuclear program after the visit by Ri to China.

The visit by Ri "appeared to be aimed at easing the current sanctions regime against North Korea," Chang said.

China may accept the meeting between Xi and Ri as a move to "restrain" North Korea's provocations and "manage" bilateral relations between the allies, Chang said.

Despite its economic leverage, China has not put strong pressure on the North to give up its nuclear weapons program.

On Tuesday, Ri held talks with Song Tao, minister of the International Department of the Chinese Communist Party, but a statement released by the Chinese side stopped short of saying that Ri and Song discussed North Korea's nuclear program.

However, North Korea's official media reported on Wednesday that Ri told Song that the North will not give up its policy of simultaneously pursuing both economic and nuclear development.

It remains unclear how China could rein in North Korea's nuclear ambition, with diplomatic sources in Beijing saying the meeting between Xi and Ri raised some prospects about a possible visit by the North Korean leader to China.

"The remarks by both Kim and Xi made it clear that both sides don't want bilateral ties to be worsened further," a diplomatic source said on the condition of anonymity.

"In this regard, it would be natural for the two sides to discuss a possible visit by Kim to China," the source said.

Kim, who took power in late 2011 following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, has yet to make an overseas trip.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in April last year that Kim and Xi could meet when such a meeting is "convenient" for both parties.

kdh@yna.co.kr
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