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Signs emerge of China-N.K. thaw

Signs of a thaw in relations between China and North Korea are emerging, with Beijing poised to increase exchanges and recently hinting at a possible bilateral summit as Seoul and Washington reaffirm their alliance.

Beijing has reportedly decided to let its border provinces increase economic cooperation with the North. Its Jilin and Liaoning provinces have announced they would expand their tour programs to the isolated country.

This week, the North resumed tourism programs, bringing scores of Chinese tourists into the country for the first time since it suspended the program four months ago to prevent Ebola infection. The North also seeks to invite Chinese people to participate in the 2015 Pyongyang Marathon on April 12.

The resumption of the tours came a few days after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters that the two countries could hold a bilateral summit at a “mutually beneficial time.”

“As the basic foundation of the North Korea-China relationship is strong, the relations will not be or should not be influenced by transient events,” he added

Analysts said that China appeared to be attempting to mend fences with the North as it feels the need to address the drawn-out diplomatic tension ahead of a possible meeting between its leader Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during a World War II victory ceremony in Russia, slated for May 9.

The bilateral relationship deteriorated after the North pushed ahead with its third nuclear test in February 2013 and the execution later in the year of Jang Song-thaek, the North Korean leader’s once-powerful uncle and a pivotal figure to manage cooperation with China.

Since he took power in 2013, Xi has yet to hold any bilateral summit with the North Korean leader, which has underscored the diplomatic estrangement between the two nations. Yet, Xi has met with South Korean President Park Geun-hye six times.

Pyongyang is seeking to diversify its diplomacy, which has been dominated by China, bolstering economic cooperation with Russia through several projects including the Hasan-Rajin logistic cooperation scheme.

“I think China’s apparent steps to enhance ties with the North seem to signal that it wants Pyongyang to pursue a balanced diplomacy (rather than focusing too much on Russia),” said Ahn Chan-il, the head of the World North Korea Research Center.

He added that amid the U.S.’ consideration of deploying the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system, an advance missile defense asset, to the peninsula, Beijing might have recalibrated the geostrategic importance of North Korea as a “buffer-zone state.”

Recently, sources of tension have emerged between Seoul and Beijing.

Among them was Seoul’s ambivalent stance on the U.S. Forces Korea’s desire to deploy THAAD here.

Seoul has said that THAAD could help defend South Korea against North Korean threats, but it has yet to stake out any clear position, arguing that no official consultations between the allies have taken place.

The issue of Seoul’s participation in the formation of the China-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank has also been a source of friction.

Beijing has encouraged Seoul to join the bank, but Seoul remains reluctant as Washington opposes it. Washington views the AIIB as part of China’s attempt to challenge the existing financial order in the region, which has long been dominated by the West and Japan.

Despite signs of improved relations between Pyongyang and Beijing, some experts cautioned against making hasty judgments on the relations. They argued that the North’s continued pursuit of nuclear arms would continue to pose hurdles to the relationship.

By Song Sang-ho (