North Korea and China in talks to repair frayed relationship
Meetings expected to focus on bilateral relations and tensions on the Korean peninsula
North Korean soldiers chat as they stand guard behind national flags of China (front) and North Korea on a boat anchored along the banks of Yalu River, near the North Korean town of Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese border city of Dandong. Photograph: Jacky Chen/Reuters
Negotiators from communist allies North Korea and China met for talks in Beijing yesterday aimed at improving their damaged relationship, just days after the North made a surprise call for dialogue with the US.
North Korea’s first vice-foreign minister Kim Kye-gwan arrived for talks at the foreign ministry with China’s vice-foreign minister Zhang Yesui that were expected to focus on bilateral relations and the situation on the Korean peninsula.
Tensions ran high earlier this year when the North threatened to wage nuclear war on the US and South Korea, but there have been tentative signs of an easing in recent weeks.
Earlier this week, North Korea’s powerful National Defence Commission, headed by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, issued an official statement through state media proposing “senior-level” talks about a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War (1950-53).
Both Seoul and Washington have responded cautiously to the offer, as Pyongyang has backtracked before.
China is North Korea’s most important ally, and the two countries are described as being “as close as lips and teeth”, both having fought on the same side in the Korean War.
China largely props up North Korea’s impoverished economy, providing nearly all of its fuel and most of what little trade it has.
However, tensions have been rising steadily between North Korea and China over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme.
The North angered China with a long-range rocket launch and nuclear test in February, and Beijing backed tighter United Nations sanctions against North Korea. Leading Chinese banks froze out North Korea’s main foreign exchange bank in recent weeks.
Beijing is thought to have been quietly putting pressure on Pyongyang behind the scenes to ease the situation.
The Chinese want to see the resumption of long-stalled six-party nuclear disarmament talks involving China, the US, North and South Korea, Japan, and Russia, chaired by Beijing.
Earlier this month, a minor disagreement over diplomatic status prompted the collapse of planned high-level talks between South and North Korea, dashing hopes of an early easing of tensions on the Korean peninsula.
At the same time, it is not in China’s interests for the government in North Korea to collapse, which could cause a stream of refugees into its territory and possibly see US troops at China’s border.
The talks are the highest-level contact between China and North Korea since US president Barack Obama and Chinese president Xi Jinping met in California in early June and agreed Pyongyang had to denuclearise.
Washington says nuclear disarmament is essential if there is to be lasting peace, but Pyongyang has vowed to stick with its arsenal of nuclear weapons.