Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit South Korea this week for talks with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, an official said Wednesday, amid regional tensions over North Korea's nuclear weapons program and Japan's growing nationalism.
Xi is scheduled to hold summit talks with Park on Thursday that are expected to focus on how to further boost their relations and how to deal with North Korea's nuclear weapons program as well as the Japanese leader's nationalistic policies.
South Korea has expressed hope that Xi's trip will further strengthen personal ties between the two leaders and enhance their bilateral relations. Park has met with Xi four times since they took office in 2013.
Still, it remains unclear whether the two neighbors will upgrade their current strategic cooperative partnership to a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership during Xi's trip.
It would be the first time in more than two decades for a sitting Chinese president to visit South Korea before traveling to North Korea, a key ally of China.
Xi first visited Pyongyang in 2008 when he was the vice president.
Xi's trip to Seoul comes amid a conspicuous absence of summit talks between the leaders of North Korea and China for more than three years.
Former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il met with Xi's predecessor, Hu Jintao, in China in May 2011.
Kim Jong-un, who took over North Korea in 2011 after the sudden death of his father and longtime leader Kim Jong-il, has yet to be invited to Beijing.
The summit comes as North Korea has vowed to develop its economy and nuclear arsenal in tandem, calling its nuclear deterrence "a valuable common asset of the nation."
China has hosted the six-nation talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons program in return for diplomatic concessions and economic aid.
China is widely believed to have significant leverage over its impoverished communist neighbor that has long been dependent on Chinese diplomatic support and economic aid.
Still, no major progress has been made to jump-start the nuclear talks, which have been dormant since late 2008. The talks involve the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan.
North Korea has threatened to carry out a "new form" of nuclear test in anger over a United Nations condemnation of its ballistic missile launches in March.
The summit also comes days after Japan adopted a new constitutional interpretation to exercise the right to "collective self-defense," in one of the biggest changes in Tokyo's post-war security policy.
The decision paves the way for Japan to fight alongside its key ally, the United States, something that has been considered beyond the scope of its war-renouncing constitution.
On Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel expressed full support for Japan's move, saying it will enable Japan to engage in a wider range of operations and make the U.S.-Japan alliance even more effective.
However, South Korea and China are wary of Japan's latest move as it calls to mind Japan's past militarism amid concerns that the power could be misused.
Japan ruled the Korean Peninsula as a colony from 1910-45 and controlled much of China during World War II.
Japan was also under fire from South Korea and China for its review of its 1993 statement acknowledging its wartime sexual enslavement of women.
Xi plans to make two speeches to South Korean and Chinese business leaders, and South Korean college students on Friday before returning home later that day.
China reportedly plans to loan a panda to South Korea as a gift. (Yonhap)