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China extends hands to both Koreas in diplomatic dance

China greenlights trilateral summit with S. Korea, Japan next month, sends No. 3 official to NK this week

By Ji Da-gyum

Published : April 10, 2024 - 15:48

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China is delicately navigating a diplomatic tightrope on the Korean Peninsula by simultaneously reaching out to both South and North Korea, amid the growing alignment between Russia and North Korea, and alongside heightened cooperation among South Korea, the United States and Japan.

China has swiftly advanced its diplomatic agenda on the peninsula by agreeing to hold a long-stalled trilateral summit involving South Korea and Japan next month, while also dispatching its No. 3 official to North Korea this week for the inauguration of the "Friendship Year" between the two countries.

South Korean Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul confirmed Monday that South Korea, Japan, and China are in the process of finalizing a date for a trilateral summit, marking the first such meeting since December 2019.

The three countries encountered difficulties in agreeing on the timing of the summit, according to diplomatic sources, largely attributed to China's passive stance towards the summit.

Beijing's reluctance coincided with the deteriorating relations between South Korea and China, as well as China's weeklong Two Sessions in March, which is its largest annual political event and parliamentary gathering.

The meeting of top diplomats from the three countries in Busan last November, which concluded without reaching any agreement on the summit despite its intended purpose, exemplified the challenges faced in this regard.

However, diplomatic sources in Seoul said discussions among Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing have gained momentum recently towards convening the summit, which the three countries have agreed to hold on a regular basis.

The trilateral summit involving South Korea, China and Japan is anticipated to take place in late May, notably following the inauguration of Taiwanese President-elect Lai Ching-te, which is scheduled for May 20.

Simultaneously, China has intensified high-level exchanges with North Korea as the two countries commemorate the 75th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations that falls on Oct. 6 this year.

China's top legislator and third highest-ranking official, Zhao Leji, is slated to "pay an official goodwill visit" to North Korea from Thursday to Saturday, China's Foreign Ministry announced Tuesday.

The Chinese party and government delegation led by Zhao will also participate in the "opening ceremony of the China-DPRK Friendship Year," Chinese Foreign Ministry's spokesperson Mao Ning said, referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have designated this year as the "Friendship Year" between the two countries to commemorate the diplomatic anniversary.

Mao underscored that the visit of the high-level delegation and its attendance at the opening ceremony "reflects the deep friendship between the two countries and the great importance China attaches to its relations with the DPRK."

A large-scale Chinese art troupe, comprising around 300 people, arrived in Pyongyang on Saturday and Tuesday to participate in the opening ceremony of the DPRK-China Friendship Year, North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency reported Wednesday.

Ming Wenjun, head of the Department of Art of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, and Shi Zeyi, deputy director general of the International Exchanges and Cooperation Bureau of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, led the art troupe, according to the KCNA.

Mira Rapp-Hooper, the US National Security Council senior director for East Asia and Oceania, underscored Tuesday that Washington hopes Zhao's visit would aid in fostering peace and stability in the region.

Rapp-Hooper further detailed that the US has several areas of concern regarding North Korean actions and rhetoric, citing the North Korean leader's "more threatening rhetoric about potential actions he might take in and around the peninsula" since the start of the new year as one of the examples.

"We are also deeply concerned about growing DPRK-Russia cooperation, which has clear implications for Ukraine as well as for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific," she said during a press briefing in Washington.

"So whatever the reason might be for the Chinese government wanting to have a high-level touch now, we hope that they will raise these issues in the interest of making the region more peaceful and stable."

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, pointed out that Zhao's visit to North Korea ahead of the birth anniversary of the late founder Kim Il-sung, which falls on April 15, suggests a shift in China's previous passive stance toward relationship with North Korea.

"China's decision to dispatch Zhao to North Korea on the occasion of North Korea's April holiday signaled its intention to more actively develop bilateral ties, although the country had taken a passive approach to ties between North Korea and China in light of the US-China relationship," Yang said.

Yang also pointed out there is a high chance of Choe Ryong-hae, the first vice chair of North Korea's State Affairs Commission, visiting China shortly after Zhao's visit. Should Choe's visit take place, it would serve as the groundwork for a visit by Kim Jong-un to China.

Yang elaborated that the approaches and perceptions of Seoul, Washington, and Beijing towards the US-China relationship, as well as the relations between South Korea and China, will significantly influence the trajectory of North Korea-China relations.

"The Yoon Suk Yeol government needs to strategically and creatively develop South Korea-China relations to ensure that the advancement of North Korea-China relations positively influences denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula," Yang said.