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North Korea

China’s point man on North Korea promoted in diplomat reshuffle

Japan and Korea specialist Kong Xuanyou is the new deputy foreign minister

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 January, 2018, 4:17pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 January, 2018, 11:42pm

Beijing’s top diplomat in charge of North Korean and Asian affairs has been promoted to deputy foreign minister, underlining China’s efforts to stabilise its often troubled relations in the region.

The appointment of assistant foreign minister Kong Xuanyou was unveiled along with a slew of personnel changes at the ministerial level by state media on Tuesday.

Analysts said the move showed a generational shift in the diplomatic establishment was under way that would likely see a reshuffle of Foreign Minister Wang Yi and several of his deputies, as well as the heads of key diplomatic missions around the world.

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The promotion of Kong – a Japan expert and China’s new point man for defusing tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear provocations – also sheds light on how Beijing plans to roll out President Xi Jinping’s new era of global power diplomacy, which he spelled out at the party congress in October.

It is also a clear sign that Beijing wants to improve strained ties with major Asian powers such as Japan, according to observers.

Kong, 58, is a fluent Japanese speaker who has mostly handled Japan issues during his rise through the foreign ministry ranks, holding various posts at Chinese diplomatic missions in Japan since the mid-1980s, according to the ministry website.

He was minister at the Chinese embassy in Japan between 2006 and 2011, serving as top deputy to three Chinese envoys to Tokyo, including Wang Yi, incumbent ambassador to Washington Cui Tiankai and Cheng Yonghua.

It had been rumoured Kong would replace Cheng, 63, who succeeded Cui in March 2010 and has become the longest serving Chinese ambassador to Japan.

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Beijing’s relations with Tokyo have been tense in the past decade amid disputes over territorial and historical issues and old animosity, and the situation has worsened since Xi took office in 2012.

But there have been signs of a momentous shift in recent months, with both Xi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promising a “fresh start” during a meeting at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in November, to avoid confrontation and jointly tackle unruly North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

“It is certainly recognition of Kong’s ability and the promotion of a Japan affairs specialist shows Beijing is willing to usher in a new chapter in Sino-Japanese relations,” said Zhang Liangui, an expert on North Korea at the Central Party School in Beijing.

Pang Zhongying, a Beijing-based international affairs expert, said if Beijing and Tokyo wanted to reset and improve ties, Xi and Abe should take the next step with official visits to each other’s countries.

Diplomatic sources in Beijing said this could be on the cards, with diplomats in both capitals working to make bilateral visits by the top leaders happen this year. Chinese and Japanese leaders have not visited each other since 2008.

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Pang said Abe appeared to be keen to move closer to Beijing, especially after US President Donald Trump developed a personal rapport with Xi last year.

“Apart from Abe’s personal ambition for Japan to maintain its regional influence, Tokyo has largely followed Washington’s formula of ‘engagement plus competition’ in dealing with a rapidly rising China,” he said.

An ethnic Korean born in Heilongjiang in the northeast, Kong is also believed to be a proficient Korean speaker and was officially named China’s top envoy on Korean peninsula affairs in August, replacing 71-year-old veteran diplomat Wu Dawei.

But observers said Kong’s latest promotion would do little to help de-escalate North Korea tensions. Beijing’s efforts to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions had largely been futile under the 13-year watch of Wu, with Pyongyang launching five nuclear tests and over a dozen missile tests last year, including two intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The long-stalled six-party denuclearisation talks between China, the US, North and South Korea, Russia and Japan – led by Beijing and once seen as a sign of its emerging diplomatic clout – were no longer considered to be the way forward, Zhang said.

“I don’t think Kong will have a major role to play on North Korea issues apart from attending routine diplomatic meetings and talks because he is dealing with a much more challenging and volatile Korean peninsula than his predecessors,” Zhang said.

“There is no realistic hope of resuming the six-party talks because North Korea, which is now a de facto nuclear-armed country, has said repeatedly it would never return to the negotiating table with the other five parties.”