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South Korea, China Discuss Leadership Change in North Korea

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, right, and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao pass an honor guard during a welcome ceremony on Monday in Beijing. The leaders on Monday met for the first time since the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (AP Photo/Andy Wong). South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, right, and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao pass an honor guard during a welcome ceremony on Monday in Beijing. The leaders on Monday met for the first time since the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (AP Photo/Andy Wong).

Chinese President Hu Jintao and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak conferred on Monday in their first meeting following the sudden death late last year of longtime North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, the Associated Press reported (see GSNJan. 6).

The two leaders held "an in-depth conversation" on developments on the Korean Peninsula and pledged to "work together for the sake of peace and stability," according to a Yonhap News Agency report (Charles Hutzler, Associated Press I/Washington Post, Jan. 9).

"China will continue to support the improvement of relations" between Seoul and Pyongyang, Reuters quoted Hu as saying.

"It is in line with the interests of all parties concerned to safeguard the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula," he added in a Xinhua News Agency report. "China hopes the parties concerned will have more moves that help promote peace and stability on the peninsula," according to Hu (Chris Buckley, Reuters I/Yahoo!News, Jan. 9).

Though they have agreed to work to encourage stability and denuclearization in the North, Seoul and Beijing have differing long-term aims for the country. While the South would ultimately like to see the Korean Peninsula reunified; China, though, is fearful that such an event would give the United States even more influence in Northeast Asia and so hopes to prop up its neighbor for as long as possible.

The South Korean government is also concerned that Kim Jong Un, who took his deceased father's place as leader of North Korea, will order a fresh attack on the South or another provocation as a means of consolidating his authority. The South Korean military was placed on high alert following Kim Jong Il's death last month.

As North Korea's chief economic benefactor and most stalwart international defender, Beijing is considered to have the greatest sway over the Kim regime. Officials in other nations have expressed concern, though, that China does not do enough to positively influence Pyongyang. Beijing, meanwhile, plays down its ability to influence the North's leadership.

"The Chinese will offer little information about North Korea and will only ask that everyone else leave North Korea alone and manage their shaky power transition," former Bush administration North Korea expert Victor Cha told AP.

"Certainly Lee hopes China will exert a strong influence on North Korea and Kim Jong Un and guide it to a path of denuclearization and reform and opening," Central Party School Korea specialist Zhang Liangui told the Chinese government-run Global Times. "But I doubt how much China can do in this regard."

Cha said China could be worried that lobbying by foreign nations for Pyongyang to shutter its nuclear weapons programs could instigate internal power scuffles between sides opposed to and in favor of such change.

"Early interaction could destabilize things internally if there are competing factions," Cha stated by e-mail. "No one knows of course but Beijing does not seem to be expressing the same enthusiasm for (nuclear) diplomacy now" (Associated Press I),

The chief negotiators from Beijing and Seoul to the long-stalled six-nation talks aimed at irreversible North Korean denuclearization were scheduled to hold talks in China on Monday alongside the presidential meeting, a South Korean official told Yonhap.

The six-party talks involve China, Japan, North and South Korea, Russia and the United States. Negotiations were last held in December 2008.

Lee was expected to urge the Chinese government to pressure Pyongyang to not undertake any provocative actions, Reuters reported (Chris Buckley, Reuters II, Jan. 9).

Allies Japan, South Korea and the United States have resolved to hold another high-level diplomatic meeting on North Korea, the U.S. State Department's point man for East Asian affairs said on Friday.

"I think we've agreed that we'll be holding a meeting in the near future," Yonhap quoted Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell as saying in Tokyo. "I think the exact date, we are still coordinating among our partners."

Asked about unsubstantiated reports of an explosion at North Korea's unfinished light-water reactor, Campbell said he had no details to share. "I've just heard that rumor, but I've heard nothing further. I can't confirm or deny, and I just simply don't know."

South Korean officials have said reports of the atomic incident are without merit (Yonhap News Agency/Korea Times, Jan. 7).

Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un was filmed nearly three years ago threatening to attack any countries that moved to intercept a North Korean long-range rocket launched in a claimed operation of the nation's nonmilitary satellite program, AP reported.

The April 2009 rocket test was harshly critiqued by the international community as a thinly veiled test of the nation's long-range missile technology and led to a breakdown in the six-party talks as well as heightened U.N. Security Council sanctions against Pyongyang (see GSN, May 15, 2009).

The video aired in a state-produced documentary is seen as part of a propaganda effort to burnish the younger Kim's credentials as a strong military leader by claiming he had headed North Korea's vast military for some time before his father's death. The documentary does indicate Kim was being prepared as North Korea's next ruler much earlier than was known to the outside world.

"I had decided to wage a real war if the enemies shot down" the rocket, Kim was quoted to have said. The documentary asserts that Kim in 2009 was in charge of the armed forces' missile interception activities.

Tokyo had warned it would fire on debris from if the rocket shot proved unsuccessful, while lawmakers in Washington pushed for the U.S. military to intercept the missile when it was launched (Hyung-Jin Kim, Associated Press II/Globe and Mail, Jan. 8).

Separately, Pyongyang wants to change the makeup of a reported food assistance package agreed to with the United States late last year to include more rice and other grains, the Korea Herald reported.

The food assistance deal, which was understood to be offered in exchange for North Korea suspending its uranium enrichment operations, has yet to be confirmed. Washington is wary of providing food aid that Pyongyang can divert to feed its military and has, according to Japanese news reports, declined to provide the type of nutritional assistance sought by North Korea. More talks on the matter, however, could take place (Choi He-suk, Korea Herald, Jan. 8).

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