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S. Korea-China summit comes at critical juncture
By Kim Young-gyo
HONG KONG, Jan. 9 (Yonhap) -- South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's trip to Beijing will be an opportunity to promote a healthy development of South Korea-China relations, a Chinese source said Monday.

   Lee, who set off on a three-day state visit to China earlier in the day, is expected to discuss with his counterpart Hu Jintao ways to strengthen bilateral economic ties and exchange views on key pending issues, including North Korea after the death of former leader Kim Jong-il.

   "China and South Korea have been close neighbors, but the pace of the two countries building a friendly relationship has been rather slow," said Zhang Langui, a professor of the Institute for International Strategic Studies at the Party School of the Central Committee of China's Communist Party.

   "I believe that the leaders of China and South Korea will put priority on the healthy development of bilateral relations."

   The two neighboring countries mark the 20th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations this year.

   During the past 20 years, bilateral trade surged 34-fold to US$220 billion in 2011 from $6.4 billion in 1992, while the two countries' relations have moved from a "friendly and cooperative relationship" in 1998 to a "partnership" in 2003 to a "comprehensive partnership" in 2008 when Lee made his first visit to China, Zhang said.

   He expects the two countries to soon raise their relationship to a "strategic cooperation partnership."

   In order to further develop bilateral relations, Zhang pointed out three issues need to be resolved between the two countries -- political trust, North Korea and trade relations.

   "Some people are wary of China's rapid development, resulting in Sinophobia," he said.

   "Both sides need to strengthen communication, deepen understanding and enhance mutual trust."

   Zhang added that while South Korea and China have a large consensus on the North Korean issue, there are some differences in interests and ideas, which have put bilateral relations to the test.

   He also said that the possible free trade agreement between South Korea and China will expand cooperation and promote economic growth, benefiting people in both countries.

   The summit meeting takes place as the Northeast Asian neighbors are cautiously watching to see if the third-generation power succession in North Korea will go smoothly following the Dec. 17 death of long-time leader Kim.

   Lee and Hu are also expected to discuss the growing tension surrounding illegal fishing operations by Chinese fishermen in South Korean waters. The two sides were involved in a diplomatic row, as a South Korean Coast Guard officer was killed during a violent clash with Chinese fishermen last month.