Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang (李克強), the man likely to succeed Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶), will focus on strengthening economic and political bonds with North Korea during a visit that began yesterday, China’s ambassador said.
Li began his three-day visit to North Korea accompanied by senior diplomats and economic officials, including China Development Bank chairman Chen Yuan (陳元), Xinhua news agency reported.
While other governments have focused on pressing Pyongyang to resume nuclear disarmament, Chinese Ambassador Liu Hongcai (劉洪才) said Li’s visit was about boosting ties.
“I’m confident that this visit will enhance political trust between China and North Korea and deepen practical trade and economic cooperation,” Liu said, according to an interview issued on the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Web site. “There is a bright outlook for friendly cooperation between the two countries.”
Li, 56, is the favorite to become premier from early 2013, when Wen will step down.
Li will visit the North for three days and then South Korea from Wednesday for two days. His trip to Pyongyang underscores Beijing’s support for its poor neighbor, ruled by North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who relies on China for economic and diplomatic support.
Pyongyang has stirred regional tensions with its nuclear arms ambitions, missile tests and deadly confrontations across the divided peninsula last year.
Beijing has stood by the North, which it sees as a brittle but vital bulwark against the US and its allies. However, China has also sought to build ties with South Korea, a much more important trade partner, and to revive six-party talks on North Korean nuclear disarmament.
North Korea walked out of the talks more than two years ago after the UN imposed fresh sanctions on it for holding nuclear and missile tests.
The published comments from Liu did not mention the nuclear disarmament talks.
Liu said that Li’s visit would “make a positive contribution to protecting and promoting regional peace and stability.”
Today, North Korea and the US open two days of talks in Geneva, but US officials have said North Korea must make real steps to healing ties with South Korea and to reviving nuclear disarmament before six-party talks can resume.
Those intermittent talks bring together China, Japan, Russia, both Koreas and the US, and produced an agreement in September 2005 under which North Korea agreed to abandon its nuclear programs in exchange for economic and diplomatic incentives to be provided by other parties.
North Korea faces chronic harvest shortfalls that have left a third of its children under five malnourished, the top UN humanitarian -official said on Friday after visiting.
China has sought to draw the North closer with economic incentives, and Liu said bilateral trade between the two countries grew to US$3.1 billion in the first seven months of this year, an 87 percent increase from the same period last year.
Chinese customs statistics show that growth was propelled by a 169.2 percent jump in the value of Chinese imports from the North.
“North Korea is paying more attention to economic development and improving people’s livelihoods,” said Liu, who added that this was encouraging more Chinese investment there.
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