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Updated: October 8, 2009 01:54 IST

China's North Korea deal raises concerns south of the border

Ananth Krishnan
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In this image provided by APTN, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is greeted by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, North Korea on Sunday. Photo: AP
AP In this image provided by APTN, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is greeted by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, North Korea on Sunday. Photo: AP

China this week again underlined the unique influence it continues to enjoy over North Korea, with the country for the first time in months hinting it may now be willing to resume talks over its nuclear programme following Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit.

But in South Korea, news of the North's willingness to return to the negotiating table, a u-turn after months of a stalemate, was only met with caution, and in some spheres, even raised concerns over their northern neighbour’s nuclear ambitions.

China on Tuesday signed a number of economic and technological co-operation agreements with North Korea, deals which analysts say were crucial in getting Pyongyang to yield ground on the nuclear issue. Among the deals, China agreed to build a new highway bridge over the Yalu River which links the two countries and will boost trade, and also gives China access to the North’s vast mineral resources.

Officials and the media in South Korea cautioned that Beijing was now rewarding Pyongyang even before any substantial nuclear commitment was made, a move that they say could ultimately end up being counter-productive.

“We need to wait and see North Korea’s real intentions,” South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan said on Wednesday.

The influential Seoul-based Chosun Ilbo newspaper said China was "repeating the mistake of the past of rewarding North Korea before it has done anything, especially when United Nations sanctions are still in effect," an approach which "weakens international pressure on North Korea and the negotiating powers of the countries in the six-party talks.”

A South Korean official said this week the North had so far received more than $ 2.2 billion in deals and aid payments from a number of countries in exchange for dismantling its nuclear programme, but still continued to flout international agreements. The country was reportedly in the final stages of restoring its Yongbyon nuclear facility which had earlier been shut down.

In April, North Korea quit the Six-Party Talks, which were set up in 2003 by China, the U.S., Japan, South Korea and Russia. The country has since conducted a nuclear test and several missile tests, defying UN sanctions and raising tensions in the region. In a u-turn, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il said this week the country would now “be willing to enter into multilateral talks, including the Six-Party Talks” to discuss dismantling its nuclear programme.

This would, however, be contingent on the outcome of talks with the United States which will take place in Pyongyang in coming weeks - a caveat, analysts say, that still gives the North enough wiggle-room to backtrack on its commitment.

This week, China declared its support to North Korea “for generations to come”, the clearest indication yet of Beijing’s support for Kim Jong-Il’s succession plans. North Korea’s recent nuclear tests were seen by some analysts as a show of strength as the ailing Mr. Kim paved the way for his son Kim Jong-Un’s succession amid fears of instability.

China is the isolated country’s closest ally and largest trading partner, accounting for 70 per cent of its total trade volume. China heavily supports Kim Jong-Il’s regime with both financial aid and food supplies. Beijing sees North Korea as a significant strategic ally in North-east Asia, and also fears that any instability in the country could lead to a massive refugee problem along its eastern borders.

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