China, SKorea hold summit on NKorea post-Kim

January 9, 2012 - 3:06 AM

BEIJING (AP) — The presidents of South Korea and China on Monday hold their first summit since Kim Jong Il's death opened the chance for major changes in North Korea, a country that is of vital interest to Seoul and Beijing, as well as a subject of strong disagreement.

While North Korea is often a topic when Chinese and South Korean leaders meet, the death of its leader last month has pushed it to the center of the summit, which had been intended to focus on mending frayed relations over Chinese fishing-fleet incursions in South Korean waters and Beijing's support for Pyongyang.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak arrived for the three-day visit Monday. After a pomp-filled formal welcome later Monday, Lee was to hold extensive talks with President Hu Jintao. He also is scheduled to meet with China's premier and the head of the legislature.

Beijing is expected to offer to open talks on a three-way free-trade agreement with Japan, Chinese state media reported, highlighting the robust economic ties China and Seoul share in contrast with the strains on other fronts.

The presidents are expected to emphasize their shared interest in the stability of poor but nuclear-armed North Korea, as their neighbor makes an uncertain transition to rule by Kim's youngest son, Kim Jong Un, and a coterie of his father's advisers.

"North Korea is under a transition period and is solidifying internal solidarity. Now is not the time to provoke North Korea," said Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor at Korea University.

Beyond that, however, priorities diverge, and the differences were on display soon after Kim Jong Il's death.

The Chinese leadership team immediately sent messages of support to the younger Kim, and Hu and other top leaders paid condolence visits to the North Korean Embassy in Beijing. South Korea's Lee put his military on high alert, and while expressing a wish for better relations he vowed a stern reaction to any provocation.

While Beijing, which already accounts for the bulk of North Korea's trade and investment, wants to see an acceleration of economic reforms, it also wants to ensure that Pyongyang's current rulers remain in power. A North Korean meltdown, in Beijing's eyes, would send refugees into China and pave the way for a unified Korea under Seoul, with its strong alliance to the U.S.

Seoul, meanwhile, would like to see North Korea retreat from its near constant war footing. It worries that in the short run, the new leadership around the younger Kim might provoke a crisis with South Korea to rally support among the public and political elite.

"Certainly Lee hopes China will exert a strong influence on North Korea and Kim Jong Un and guide it to a path of de-nuclearization and reform and opening. But I doubt how much China can do in this regard," Zhang Liangui, a veteran Korea watcher at the Central Party School, said in an interview published Monday in the state-run Global Times newspaper.

One long-term shared interest has been coaxing North Korea to relinquish its nuclear weapons programs. But in Beijing's desire to maintain North Korea as a buffer state and see its new leadership ensconced, analysts question whether it is placing a lower priority on resuming disarmament talks.

Talks on North Korea's nuclear program, involving the two Koreas, China, Japan, the United States and Russia, have been stalled since 2009.

Victor Cha, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Beijing may be concerned that outside pressure on North Korea over nuclear arms could set off infighting between groups for or against reforms.

"Early interaction could destabilize things internally if there are competing factions," said Cha in an email. "No one knows of course but Beijing does not seem to be expressing the same enthusiasm for diplomacy now."

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Associated Press reporters Hyung-jin Kim and Foster Klug contributed to this report.