x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

China and South Korea meet for talks

The Chinese and South Korean presidents have called for a swift resumption of six-nation North Korean nuclear disarmament talks.

Chinese president Xi Jinping (left) welcomes South Korean president Park Geun-Hye outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
Chinese president Xi Jinping (left) welcomes South Korean president Park Geun-Hye outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

BEIJING // The Chinese and South Korean presidents called yesterday for a swift resumption of six-nation North Korean nuclear disarmament talks.

The request was during a summit that brings together Pyongyang's archrival and its biggest ally.

Park Geun-hye's four-day visit, which began yesterday, marks the South Korean president's first formal discussions with the new Chinese administration led by Xi Jinping, the president, and Li Keqiang, the prime minister. Talks will also focus on booming economic ties between the two, highlighted by the unusually large, high-powered trade delegation travelling with Ms Park.

The meetings are seen as piling further pressure on the North to rejoin the talks, and Mr Xi said improving conditions on the peninsula boded well for new discussions.

"We hope all sides can seize this opportunity to work to return to the six-party talks as soon as possible," Mr Xi said after talks with Ms Park at the Great Hall of the People, the seat of the legislature in the heart of Beijing.

Ms Park said the sides agreed on the need to prevent North Korea having nuclear weapons "under any circumstances" and to "preserve the peace and stability of Korean Peninsula".

The two countries have also signed agreements on energy cooperation, trade and other areas.

Ms Park, a self-taught Mandarin speaker, said she was keen to enlist China's leaders in the drive for new North Korean denuclearisation discussions that would also include the United States, Russia and Japan.

The China-hosted talks with Pyongyang have been stalled since 2009 over the question of how to verify that North Korea is fulfilling its commitments to dismantle its nuclear facilities.

Ms Park was scheduled to meet Mr Li today.

The calls for new talks follow China's frustration with its neighbour and long-standing communist ally for having ramped up tensions with last year's long-range missile launch and February's third nuclear weapon test.

Beijing showed its displeasure by supporting tightened United Nations sanctions and cracking down on North Korean banking activity.

While China is North Korea's biggest source of diplomatic and economic support, China's trade and other interactions with the South are far larger and more diverse. Ordinary Chinese are also big fans of South Korean pop culture and high-tech wares, and there is a growing sentiment among urban intellectuals that China should not sacrifice international credibility for the sake of coddling Pyongyang.

Despite the pressure to rejoin talks, Kim Jong-un's mercurial North Korean regime appears to remain wary.

Ms Park has said that any resumption of talks must be preceded by signs that the North is serious about following through on its disarmament commitments, echoing the position of the US. Washington does not want to be drawn into talks that serve only to relieve pressure on Pyongyang, provide it a platform to seek much-needed aid, and buy it more time to further its nuclear weapons programme.

Yet, after the top North Korean negotiator, Kim Kye-gwan, visited Beijing this month for talks, Chinese analysts said Pyongyang seemed more interested in improving its damaged ties with China than in swiftly moving towards new six-nation talks.

While Beijing has remained neutral over recent developments, Chinese scholars said Mr Xi's government would seek an intermediary role to create conditions for a restoration of talks. They warned, however, that Beijing would oppose harsher sanctions or other measures that could spark a backlash from Pyongyang or further destabilise the regime of the young and inexperienced Mr Kim, who took over following his father's death 18 months ago.

"It's very hard to say whether the meeting will produce any new proposals, but, following the third nuclear test, I think China and every other country involved realises the seriousness of the need to get North Korea back into talks," said Zhang Liangui, a researcher with the ruling Communist Party's main research and training institute in Beijing.