Chinese, North Korean foreign ministers meet ahead of major summits

Ri Yong Ho addresses the UN General Assembly last September: he is currently visiting Beijing as part of a diplomatic flurry

Beijing (AFP) – China’s foreign minister told his North Korean counterpart on Tuesday that Beijing appreciates Pyongyang’s efforts to ease nuclear tensions ahead of planned summits between the isolated country’s leader Kim Jong Un and the South Korean and US presidents.

North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho met China’s chief diplomat Wang Yi in Beijing just a week after Kim made a surprise trip to the Chinese capital to meet President Xi Jinping.

China and North Korea are trying to repair their own relations, which have been strained as Beijing has backed a slew of United Nations sanctions to pressure Pyongyang to stop its nuclear activities.

China is North Korea’s sole major ally and trade partner.

The latest visit is part of a flurry of diplomacy that has eased regional tensions after months of bellicose rhetoric between the United States and North Korea over Pyongyang’s nuclear programme.

“China appreciates the North’s commitment to the denuclearisation of the peninsula and its important efforts to ease the situation on the peninsula, and supports the North’s leader’s meeting with the leaders of South Korea and the US,” Wang told Ri, according to a Chinese foreign ministry statement.

Ri said Pyongyang was willing to develop the traditional friendly relations between the Cold War-era allies, and the ministry quoted Ri as saying the North “will also maintain close and strategic communication with China on Korean peninsula issues”. 

Wang told his counterpart the two foreign ministries should increase exchanges at all levels.

“Under the current situation, maintaining and developing the traditional friendship between China and North Korea is very important for both countries and regions,” Wang said, according to the statement.

State media images showed Wang and Ri smiling as they shook hands and sat for talks.

North Korea’s official KCNA news agency said Ri was heading a government delegation that left on Tuesday for a conference of foreign ministers of the Non-Aligned Movement in Azerbaijan.

Ri will also visit Russia and other former Soviet states.

– ‘Eliminate interference’ –

Kim last week met President Xi Jinping on his first trip abroad since inheriting power from his father Kim Jong Il in December 2011.

Kim’s secretive visit was dubbed “unofficial” but bore all the trappings of an official state occasion, with honour guards, bouquets, red carpets and meetings with most of China’s top leaders.

Kim is now due to hold a summit with South Korea’s Moon Jae-in on April 27 and a landmark meeting with US President Donald Trump is also planned — events that give both Pyongyang and Beijing new incentives to repair their strained relationship.

Wang struck a note of caution about the diplomatic developments during a press conference with Switzerland’s visiting foreign minister earlier Tuesday.

“Of course, historical experience tells us that when the situation on the (Korean) peninsula eases and peace talks usher in the light of dawn, there are often all types of disturbances,” he said, calling on all parties to “eliminate interference” and continue dialogue.

“We hope the leaders of the US and North Korea can successfully meet and enhance mutual understanding and establish basic trust,” Wang said.

South Korea said last month after talks with Kim in Pyongyang that he would consider abandoning his nuclear weapons in exchange for US security guarantees, and would halt weapons tests while talks were under way.

In Beijing, Kim had been quoted as saying by China’s Xinhua news agency that the issue of denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula “can be resolved if South Korea and the United States respond to our efforts with goodwill, create an atmosphere of peace and stability while taking progressive and synchronous measures for the realisation of peace”.

– ‘Deeply moved’ –

The diplomatic thaw began during February’s Winter Olympics in South Korea, to which Kim sent athletes, cheerleaders and his sister as an envoy.

The North has rapidly expanded on the thaw by launching several diplomatic initiatives.

Earlier this week Kim attended a rare performance in Pyongyang by South Korean K-pop stars, shaking their hands and taking photos backstage. 

Kim was “deeply moved” by the performance, state media reported, an unusual step as the authoritarian regime typically struggles to prevent the South’s pop culture from reaching its isolated people.