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North Korea's Kim signals he's willing to talk in letter to China's Xi

May 24, 2013|By Barbara Demick
  • Choe Ryong Hae, center, director of the North Korean People's Army politburo, leaves the airport in Pyongyang to visit China.
Choe Ryong Hae, center, director of the North Korean People's Army… (Korea News Service / AFP/Getty…)

BEIJING -- Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday personally received a handwritten letter from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, signaling a possible rapprochement after months of estrangement between the communist allies.

The contents of the letter were not disclosed, but the envoy who delivered the message, Choe Ryong Hae, the North Korean military's top political officer, had earlier indicated a willingness to return to negotiations concerning its controversial nuclear program.

North Korea, the Chinese news agency quoted Choe as saying, is “willing to accept the suggestion of the Chinese side and launch dialogue with all relevant parties.’’

He reportedly added that his country “hopes to concentrate its energy on developing its economy and improving people’s livelihood and is ready to create a peaceful external environment for this.’’

The fact that Xi, who became president only in March, gave a personal audience to Kim’s envoy was something of a surprise given months of North Korean snubs toward China.

Pyongyang has repeatedly refused requests for meetings by high-ranking Chinese officials and ignored Beijing’s demands that it refrain from nuclear and missile tests.

"It seemed too soon to meet with the North Koreans," said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Beijing’s Renmin University. "The North Koreans can easily cheat China. They pay nothing for their cheap, friendly words.’’

The meeting is likely to disappoint the White House. Xi is scheduled to meet with President Obama next month in California, and there had been hopes that China and the United States could jointly come up with a more decisive strategy to rein in North Korea.

Despite more conciliatory behavior by the Pyongyang regime the last few weeks, it is unlikely that any serious negotiations will take place over the country’s nuclear program. Pyongyang has said repeatedly it will not negotiate away its nuclear weapons -- a position at odds with China and the U.S..

"China has a very clear position concerning the issue that all the parties involved should stick to the objective of denuclearization, safeguard the peace and stability on the peninsula, and resolve disputes through dialogue and consultation," Xi was quoted as saying after Friday’s meeting.

Chinese officials have been openly contemptuous of Kim, who is about 30 years old and has at times demonstrated more aggressive behavior on the world stage than his father, Kim Jong Il, who died in December 2011.

After its third nuclear test in February, Pyongyang tore up the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War, closed a joint-venture industrial park with South Korea that was one of its few legitimate sources of hard currency, and threatened to launch “thermonuclear war” against the United States.

"We haven’t seen any real change in North Korea’s extreme hostility,’’ Shi said. “If there are talks, they will only be talks for talk’s sake."

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