SEOUL: South Korean President Park Geun-Hye heads for a summit in China on Wednesday, looking to exploit signs of Beijing’s growing frustration with its unpredictable ally North Korea.
The North and its nuclear weapons programme will dominate the agenda of Park’s summit talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, which will be anxiously monitored by the regime in Pyongyang.
Speaking to senior officials on Monday, Park said her priority in Beijing would be to “harden” China-South Korea cooperation on “attaining the goal of North Korea’s denulcearisation”.
Officials in South Korea feel the time is ripe for a re-calibration of the Seoul-Beijing-Pyongyang axis.
“China has traditionally emphasised the need to keep North Korea stable, while trying to solve the nuclear issue,” said Choi Woo-Seon, a professor at the state-run Korea National Diplomatic Academy.
“But the two issues are actually sometimes contradictory and these days China’s position is gradually moving closer to the position of the US and South Korea.”
Washington and Seoul have made it clear they will never accept the idea of North Korea as a nuclear state, and insist Pyongyang must show a tangible commitment to abandoning its nuclear weapons if it wants substantive talks.
Both have pressured China — North Korea’s sole major ally and economic lifeline — to use all its leverage to bring Pyongyang to heel.
North Korea appears to have moderated its line after a series of incendiary threats in recent months against Seoul and Washington. While a planned meeting with South Korea fell through, it has offered direct talks with the United States, and has sent two envoys to Beijing in the past four weeks.
China’s relationship with North Korea — famously described by Mao Zedong as being as close as “lips and teeth” — was forged in the 1950-53 Korean War which China entered to prevent the North’s total defeat.
But it has weakened significantly over the years, as China’s economic transformation has distanced it from the ideological rigidity of the dynastic Kim regime across the border.
In line with UN sanctions, Beijing has moved to restrict Pyongyang’s financial operations in China which the international community says are the major conduit for funding its nuclear weapons programme.
“China tended to emphasise dialogue rather than pressure in the past, but I think that Chinese leaders began to realise it’s necessary to put some strong pressure on North Korea,” Choi said.
China’s relations with South Korea got off to a late start with diplomatic relations only established in 1992, but have improved steadily ever since, especially in the economic sphere.
China is now South Korea’s biggest trade partner and Park will be accompanied on her trip by a sizeable business delegation. The two sides are expected to discuss a free-trade pact.
The strategic side of the partnership has always been coloured by the issue of North Korea and stagnated under Park’s predecessor Lee Myung-Bak, who focused his efforts on boosting Seoul’s alliance with Washington.
The hopes of a reboot have been bolstered by the fact that Park and Xi are both new leaders, having taken office within one month of each other earlier this year.
Park will be hoping for a strong joint statement that commits both sides to a denuclearised North Korea, with China unlikely to go much further.
As irritating as Beijing might find Pyongyang’s behaviour, ensuring North Korea’s survival remains China’s bottom line, given the alternative of a unified Korea allied to the United States.
Jia Qingguo, a professor of international relations at Peking University, said Beijing wanted to strengthen the overall strategic relationship with Seoul.
“China wants to attach a lot of importance to this relationship not just because of North Korea,” Jia said. “The relationship deserves this kind of attention.”
But he acknowledged that any improvement in China-South Korea ties would “impact the feelings” of North Korea.
“They are sensitive to events like this,” he said.