BEIJING // A top Chinese official has urged North Korea to improve relations with the United States and South Korea as it looks to dampen tensions on the Korean peninsula and encourage Pyongyang to kick-start its sputtering economy.
The Chinese vice-premier Li Keqiang's comments on a three-day visit to his country's secretive communist neighbour and close ally, came as North Korean and US diplomats prepared to meet in Geneva over the possibility of resuming six-party talks concerning Pyongyang's nuclear programme.
"Li said that it is in the interests of various parties concerned to improve [North Korea's] ties with South Korea and the United States, enhance dialogues and contacts, and safeguard peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula," reported China's state-run Xinhua news agency.
Xinhua reiterated Beijing's support for the resumption of the six-party talks, which involve both Koreas, the United States, Russia, Japan and China.
These meetings have been on ice since 2009 after North Korea walked out following disagreements when Pyongyang carried out a nuclear test. Washington and Seoul insist Pyongyang must prove it is serious about abandoning its nuclear programme before the talks can restart, amid concerns North Korea is just looking to secure food aid and other concessions.
US and North Korean officials were today set to hold the second of two days of talks in Geneva to thrash out these and other issues, including reuniting families separated by the division of the peninsula.
Photographs released by Xinhua yesterday showed Mr Li and Choe Yong-rim, the North Korean premier, seated at a banquet table piled high with apples and grapes, a stark contrast to the diets experienced by many in impoverished North Korea. About a quarter of the country's 24 million people depend on food aid; daily rations of which consist of about 200 grams of maize, cabbage and rice. The antiquated agricultural system is, according to the United Nations, about 20 per cent short of producing the 5.3 million tonnes of food the country needs each year.
Mr Li's comments on improving relations with South Korea and the US may have been made now because, in April 2012, North Korea will mark 100 years since the birth of the late Kim Il-sung, the country's founder, suggested Ding Xueliang, a foreign affairs analyst at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
"According to past experience, when North Korea has had some important political events, to do something dramatic and provocative is often part of the so-called official celebrations," he said.
Beijing is concerned, he said, about steps North Korea could take to "destabilise the situation on the peninsula". In November 2010, North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong, a South Korean island, killing two young marines and two elderly civilians, and it was blamed for the sinking in March the same year of South Korea's Cheonan warship with the loss of 46 lives.
Mr Li, likely to replace Wen Jiabao as the Chinese premier in early 2013, also said Chinese-North Korean trade must increase and the two countries should carry out further joint industrial projects on top of others announced recently. Bilateral trade jumped 87 per cent in the first seven months of this year to US$3.1 billion (Dh11.4bn).
China, which sees North Korea as a buffer from the US-allied South Korea, is keen for Pyongyang to introduce economic reforms. Beijing believes these will promote stability on the peninsula, improve living standards and reduce the north's dependence on aid. South Korea and the US have suspended food aid shipments and North Korea therefore relies heavily on China.
"Li Keqiang's advice ... on the economic reforms is very rational on the part of China because China does not want North Korea as a burden," said Mr Ding.
"China benefits from some trade, but it has given North Korea too much for its energy and food shortages. China has its own domestic problems and it does not want the North Korean economy to have some more serious [problems]."