Li Yuanchao

Vice-President's North Korea trip shows Pyongyang still key partner

Vice-President's visit comes amid concern among some party officials that Beijing was too tough on Pyongyang for its nuclear test

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 July, 2013, 4:32am

Vice-President Li Yuanchao sets off for North Korea today to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Korean war in a visit that analysts say shows Beijing still regards Pyongyang as a close partner.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in a statement yesterday that Li would begin his visit to Pyongyang today and end it on Sunday.

Li, who narrowly missed a spot on the Politburo's supreme Standing Committee last year, is the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit North Korea since Kim Jong-un succeeded his father as leader of the impoverished country in December 2011.

Li will attend events marking the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean war, in which China fought on Pyongyang's side against forces led by the US.

Hong's statement did not say whether Li would meet top North Korean leaders, but observers expect that a meeting with Kim is likely to take place.

Chinese state-media ran extensive commentaries of the 1950-53 conflict yesterday, saying Beijing's assistance to Pyongyang had contributed to peace in the region for six decades.

"China was fighting for peace and defending the nations," wrote Qian Lihua, a former director of the Ministry of National Defence's foreign affairs office, in the overseas edition of the People's Daily. "However, 60 years after the war, there is still no real peace.

"The only solution to tackle problems facing the Korean peninsula is negotiation and dialogue on an equal basis."

Li's trip comes amid concern among some in the Communist Party that Beijing was too tough on North Korea following Pyongyang's nuclear test and rocket launches earlier this year. Beijing joined the US to back United Nations sanctions against the North.

Tensions across the Yalu River have eased since Kim's envoy, Choe Ryong-hae, visited Beijing in May and met President Xi Jinping . North Korea's first vice-minister of foreign affairs, Kim Gye-gwan, also visited China earlier this month.

"The visit of Li to Pyongyang probably signifies that China still considers North Korea as a very important and close partner," said Cui Zhiying , director of Tongji University's Korean Peninsula Research Centre. "The two nations are also expected to strengthen economic and trade co-operation."

Cai Jian , deputy director of Fudan University's Centre for Korean Studies, said Beijing and Pyongyang strategically needed each other. Pyongyang relies on Beijing's diplomatic support, while the collapse of North Korea would be detrimental to Beijing's efforts to offset US influence in the region, he said.

Cai said Kim resorted to military actions to consolidate his authority amid intense speculation of a power struggle in Pyongyang, and is likely to seek Chinese economic support to help legitimise his rule.

Beijing is expected to urge Pyongyang to stop its provocative behaviour and focus on economic development, Cai said.