BEIJING (AP) — The presidents of South Korea and China on Monday held their first summit since Kim Jong Il's death opened the chance for major changes in North Korea, where Seoul and Beijing share vital interests as well as strong disagreements.
While North Korea is often a topic when Chinese and South Korean leaders meet, the death of its leader last month has pushed it to the center of the summit, which was to have focused on mending frayed relations over Chinese fishing fleet incursions in South Korean waters and Beijing's support for Pyongyang.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency said South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and Chinese President Hu Jintao had "an in-depth discussion" about the situation on the Korean peninsula and agreed to "work together for the sake of peace and stability." It cited an anonymous South Korean presidential official.
Beijing was expected to offer to open talks on a three-way free trade agreement with Japan, Chinese state media reported, highlighting the robust economic ties China and South Korea share in contrast with the strains on other fronts.
The presidents were expected to emphasize their shared concern for the stability of North Korea — poor but with nuclear weapons programs — as it makes an uncertain transition to rule by Kim's son, Kim Jong Un, and a coterie of his father's advisers.
"Peace and stability on the Korean peninsula serve the common interests of all parties," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said about the Lee-Hu summit at a daily media briefing. The sentiment was echoed in a nearly identical statement from the presidential Blue House in Seoul.
Beyond that, however, priorities diverge. China dislikes even talking in detail about its North Korea ally with other countries, seeing it as an invitation to meddling.
"The Chinese will offer little information about North Korea and will only ask that everyone else leave North Korea alone and manage their shaky power transition," said Victor Cha, a Korea expert and former National Security Council official in the administration of President George W. Bush.
While Beijing, which already accounts for the bulk of North Korea's trade and investment, wants to see an acceleration of economic reforms, it also wants to ensure that Pyongyang's current rulers remain in power. A North Korean meltdown, in Beijing's eyes, would send refugees into China and pave the way for a unified Korea under Seoul, with its strong alliance to the U.S.
Seoul, meanwhile, would like to see North Korea retreat from its near constant war footing. It worries that in the short run, the new leadership around the younger Kim might provoke a crisis with South Korea to rally support among the public and political elite.
"Certainly Lee hopes China will exert a strong influence on North Korea and Kim Jong Un and guide it to a path of denuclearization and reform and opening. But I doubt how much China can do in this regard," Zhang Liangui, a veteran Korea watcher at the Central Party School, said in an interview published Monday in the state-run Global Times newspaper.
One long-term shared interest has been coaxing North Korea to relinquish its nuclear weapons programs. But in Beijing's desire to maintain North Korea as a buffer state and see its new leadership ensconced, analysts suspect it may now be placing a lower priority on resuming disarmament talks.
Talks on North Korea's nuclear program, involving the two Koreas, China, Japan, the United States and Russia, have been stalled since 2009.
Cha, the former U.S. official and now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Beijing may be concerned that outside pressure on North Korea over nuclear arms could set off infighting between groups for or against reforms.
"Early interaction could destabilize things internally if there are competing factions," Cha said in an email. "No one knows of course but Beijing does not seem to be expressing the same enthusiasm for diplomacy now."
Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim and Foster Klug contributed to this report.