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China's Xi heads to S. Korea with North on agenda

BEIJING--Chinese President Xi Jinping heads for South Korea Thursday on a closely-watched state visit, stepping into the political and security thicket of the Korean peninsula for the first time as leader with Pyongyang's nuclear program high on the agenda.

The two-day visit underscores the personal ties Xi has developed with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who visited China last year.

In contrast, Beijing — the North's traditional ally — has not had a summit with Pyongyang since the December 2011 death of its then-leader Kim Jong Il.

The rule of his son and successor Kim Jong Un has so far been characterized by bellicosity and provocation.

On Wednesday North Korea fired two short-range rockets off its east coast, South Korea said, the third such action in the past week, sparking an indirect expression of concern from China's foreign ministry.

“We hope parties concerned can do more things which can be conducive to defuse the tension on the Korean peninsula and to make joint efforts to safeguard the peace and stability of the peninsula,” spokesman Hong Lei told a regular briefing.

Previously, Kim has had his own uncle Jang Song Thaek — seen as China's primary point of contact with the regime — executed in a purge, and threatened nuclear war against the U.S.

The last Chinese head of state to go to Pyongyang was Hu Jintao in 2005, and no visit by Kim Jong Un to Beijing has ever been officially confirmed.

“There is clear tension between Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping,” John Delury, an expert on China at Yonsei University in Seoul, told AFP.

“But the gloves are still on,” he added, saying they were “leaving room for improvement in their relationship.”

Chinese officials were quick to deny that the decision for Xi to go to the South rather than the North was a snub to Pyongyang.

Chinese vice foreign minister Liu Zhenmin, briefing reporters on the visit on Tuesday, insisted it “is not targeted at any third country,” adding: “China maintains friendly and cooperative relations with all our neighbors.”

He hinted, however, at China's growing frustration with North Korea over its nuclear development.

“The Korean Peninsula nuclear issue has been troubling countries in the region and the international community for many years,” Liu said, adding that Xi and Park will address it in their talks, and it will be reflected in a joint statement.

For Seoul's part, South Korean foreign minister Yun Byung-se told a parliamentary session Monday that the two were “expected to have in-depth discussion and spend considerable time on North Korea's nuclear program and other issues related to the Korean Peninsula.”

China Ties

China is the North's key energy provider and diplomatic protector — their ties sealed in the Korean War — and sees its neighbor as a buffer against finding U.S. troops stationed on its own border.

On the other hand, Beijing and Seoul only established formal diplomatic ties in 1992 after decades of Cold War enmity, but they have since developed strong trade and cultural relations.

According to Chinese figures, their two-way trade totaled US$274.24 billion last year, more than 40 times the US$6.55 billion Beijing recorded with the North.

Pyongyang carried out its third underground atomic test in February 2013 — resulting in further pressure for Beijing, which wants to restart stalled multilateral negotiations known as the six-party talks on the North's denuclearization, to rein in the country.

Under Xi, China's “central government appears to be very worried by its North Korean neighbor, not necessarily by the nature of the system but the instability of the current leader,” Alice Ekman, a China researcher at the French Institute of International Relations, said at a lecture in Beijing on Wednesday.

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