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*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

Kim Jong-un's Special Envoy Meets Chinese President, Expresses Wish to Resume Dialogue

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- While the volatile situation lingers on the Korean Peninsula, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's special envoy made a surprise three-day trip to China last week, where he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping to express Pyongyang's willingness to rejoin the long-stalled six-party talks to end its nuclear programs.

   Choe Ryong-hae, the director of the General Political Bureau of (North) Korea's People's Army (KPA), met Xi on May 24 at the Great Hall of the People on the final day of his trip to Beijing, the China News Service said, adding Choe had delivered Kim Jong-un's personal letter to Xi.

   China is a major political and economic backer of North Korea but their relations have soured in the recent past, especially after Pyongyang launched a long-range rocket in December and conducted its third nuclear test in February. China then supported U.N. sanctions against the North and has reportedly taken steps to restrict financial transactions between the two countries that many observers said could hurt the isolated country because it relies heavily on China for food and fuel.

   During the meeting, Xi reconfirmed China's policy of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, China's official Xinhua news service said. "China has a very clear position concerning the issue that all parties involved should stick to the objective of denuclearization, safeguard the peace and stability of the peninsula and resolve disputes through dialogue and consultation," the president said.

   Xi urged all sides to remain calm and exercise restraint for the resumption of the six-party talks and made clear long-lasting peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula are common aspirations share by all people in the region, Xinhua said.

   Choe conveyed North Korea's willingness to open dialogue on the issue with "concerned parties," and Pyongyang's commitment to take active measures to ensures stability on the peninsula, it said.

   The envoy stressed the need to maintain stable external conditions for the North's economic growth and improvement in the livelihood of its people, informed sources said.

   He said that Pyongyang values its close ties with Beijing and hopes for ways to expand relations through exchanges at the highest level in an apparent reference to a possible visit to Beijing by Kim Jong-un, according to the sources.

   The on-and-off six-party talks, which began in 2003, have been suspended since its last session in 2008. The talks involve the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia.

   In meetings with other Chinese officials, Choe reportedly outlined North Korea's willingness to follow China's suggestions to hold talks to ease tensions in the region.

   Choe, a vice marshal, first made the remark about the North's willingness to talk during a meeting with Liu Yunshan, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China on May 23. He made a similar comment in the meeting with Fan Changlong, vice chairman of China's Central Military Commission earlier in the day.

   At the meeting between Choe and Fan, the Chinese official made clear that Beijing wants all sides to adhere to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and to resolve outstanding issues through dialogue, Chinese media reported. Fan also said the North's nuclear weapons escalated tensions and endangered peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.

   Choe's mention of the six-party talks may signal a shift in North Korea's policy and could alleviate tensions on the Korean Peninsula, observers in Beijing said.

   If tensions are reduced, it could lead to China resuming food and energy aid. They, however, pointed out that the special envoy had not responded directly to calls by the Chinese officials he met on the denuclearization issue, that is key to ending the current impasse.

   "Choe seems to have laid down all the cards he had, but this does not mean that the discord over the key issue of North Korea's nuclear ambitions has been cleared away," a Chinese expert, who declined to be identified, said. He said that by mentioning Pyongyang's willingness to return to the six-party talks, the North may have been able to deflect criticism from China and buy it some time.

   A Seoul government official said, "The North, including its leader, has said on numerous occasions it will never give up its nuclear weapons or missile arsenal." He said if Pyongyang does not back down, future discussions will make no headway.

   Seoul's unification ministry spokesman Kim Hyung-suk said Seoul's position toward Pyongyang remains steadfast and that other countries share this view. "The North must give up its weapons of mass destruction and take actions that can win the trust of the international community," he said, adding Seoul has no plan to reward Pyongyang for bad behavior or brinkmanship.

   Despite some negative view on Choe's China trip, North Korea's state media said on May 25 that the envoy delivered Kim Jong-un's hand written letter to Xi, underlining the need to foster and consolidate the traditional friendship between the two countries.

   Kim's remarks in the letter are largely seen as part of a greater effort to mend fences with China after Pyongyang angered Beijing by ignoring its repeated calls to curb tensions on the peninsula and by continuing to develop its nuclear program.

   "Kim Jong-un in his personal letter underlined the need to carry forward and consolidate the traditional DPRK (North Korea)-China friendship provided and cultivated by the revolutionaries of the elder generation of the two countries," according to the North's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) report monitored in Seoul. "Xi Jinping expressed deep thanks for this (letter) and asked Choe Ryong Hae to convey his cordial greetings to Kim Jong Un," the KCNA added.

   The KCNA report, however, did not make mention of Choe's remarks to the Chinese president of Pyongyang's want to resume the suspended six-party talks.

   According to the state Chinese media, Choe conveyed North Korea's willingness to open dialogue on the issue with "concerned parties," and Pyongyang's commitment to take active measures to ensure stability on the peninsula.

   Shortly upon his arrival, the North Korean envoy met with Wang Jiarui, the head of the central committee's external affairs of the Communist Party of China (CPC). On May 23, Choe toured the Beijing Economic and Technological Development Area (BDA) in the company of Liu Jieyi, the vice minister of the CPC's international department, and was warmly welcomed by workers, the China Central Television (CCTV) reported.

   Choe's trip to China came before Chinese President Xi Jinping's scheduled meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in California on June 7-9. Xi is also set to meet with South Korean President Park Geun-hye in Bejing in late June.

   Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, in a daily news briefing on May 23, confirmed Park's upcoming trip, saying, "We believe that President Park Geun-Hye's state visit to China will bring China-ROK relations to a new and higher level."

   Earlier, Hong had said Choe's trip should allow the two countries to exchange views on the latest developments taking place on the Korean Peninsula and other mutual interests.

   The Seoul government sees North Korea's policy direction as expressed through Choe lacks specifics concerning the desired goal of it and other regional players to make the Korean Peninsula nuclear-free.

   "Unlike China, North Korea did not say the word 'denuclearization,'" a high-ranking South Korean government official said. "We have to wait a little longer and watch the words and behavior of North Korea regarding nuclear issues."

   The official also said it is "too early" to believe the truthfulness of Pyongyang's intentions to return to the six-party forum. The official also noted that it is still too early to judge whether the estranged relationship between the two communist countries has been mended.

   The U.S. government is also cautious about reports of North Korea's intent to return to dialogue. "I don't think we know enough one way or another to characterize it," State Department deputy spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters. Ventrell stressed that North Korea knows what it has to do for the resumption of negotiations with the U.S.

   Washington has repeatedly called for Pyongyang to demonstrate its seriousness about denuclearization through actions, not words. "We're committed to keeping the five parties of the six-party process very much united and focused on denuclearization... our core goal in that regard," Ventrell said.

   But North Korea has displayed a shift to a dialogue phase by dispatching a high-level envoy to China last week, a pro-North newspaper published in Japan said on May 25. In an article on Choe's visit to Beijing, the Choson Sinbo said that Pyongyang appears to have signaled its intention to shift toward dialogue for peace and prosperity, citing Chinese media reports that envoy Choe mentioned the willingness to rejoin the long-suspended six-party talks.

   The Choson Sinbo went on to say that envoy Choe's visit has widened China's diplomatic position as the host of the six-party talks, opening the way for "peace diplomacy" that will urge the United States to come up with measures to resolve the crisis. "If the phase is changed from confrontation to dialogue, efforts to avoid conflict wished by the U.S. president himself should be made first," the paper said.

   A high-ranking Seoul official said, "North Korea appears to have delivered its intention to resume dialogue to China, and the two sides seem to have shared the need for dialogue." But the official painted a cautious picture of the outlook for the resumption of dialogue, noting Pyongyang's failure to mention denuclearization. Another Seoul official also said North Korea and China are still wide apart as far as the denuclearization issue is concerned said.

   Also clouding the outlook for the resumption of dialogue, the North poured out raw criticism of South Korean President Park in an official statement released on May 25.

   Using Park's name for the first time since her inauguration in late February, the spokesman for the Policy Department of the North's National Defense Commission issued a statement and said, "Park Geun-hye, puppet president of South Korea, openly revealed her sinister intention to stand in confrontation with the DPRK (North Korea) again on May 23."

   "When meeting with the director of the U.S. Center for Strategic and International Studies and his party that day, she said that the north has played a 'game' escalating the tension on the Korean Peninsula. Recently she was so pitiful as to coquettishly behave, blustering that the north is attempting a new 'gamble' called new line on simultaneously pushing forward economic construction and the building of nuclear force," said the statement.

   "Personally hurting the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK (North Korea), she made such reckless remarks as uttering the north cannot succeed in implementing the above-said line. She foolishly tried to shift the responsibility for having strained the overall situation on the Korean Peninsula onto the north."

   Meanwhile, senior Chinese official and roaming regional ambassador Wang Jiarui recently described his country's ties with North Korea as merely "normal relations between states," a lawmaker in Seoul said on May 27. Yoo Ki-june of the ruling Saenuri Party's Supreme Council was speaking after he led a group of 10 ruling and opposition lawmakers on a visit to China recently.

   Yoo told Saenuri leaders that the group met senior Chinese officials like Wang, the director of the Communist Party's International Department, and Chongqing party secretary Sun Zhengcai, who handles Korean affairs. "In my meetings with them, I sensed a lot of change in Chinese diplomacy toward North Korea," Yoo said.

   He later told a newspaper in Seoul, "Wang called Beijing-Pyongyang ties 'normal relations between states' while explaining his country's relations with North Korea since the North's third nuclear test. He implied that Pyongyang is so recalcitrant that it's hard for Beijing to influence it." "In the past, China tried to defend the North even if it had made mistakes, but this time all Chinese officials we met openly complained about the North," Yoo added.