China urged ally North Korea to improve its strained ties with longtime foes the United States and South Korea, state media reported Monday, as U.S. and North Korean diplomats prepared to talk about restarting negotiations on Pyongyang's nuclear programs.
On a visit to North Korea, Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang told North Korean Premier Choe Yong Rim on Sunday that improving ties with the U.S. and South Korea would promote stability in the region, China's official Xinhua News Agency reported.
Li's message seems intended to further diplomacy on North Korea's nuclear program that is already under way and to enhance China's role in it. Li's three-day trip to North Korea is being immediately followed by a two-day visit to South Korea, underscoring Beijing's good ties with both Koreas and its desire to revive the stalled six-nation disarmament negotiations.
U.S. and North Korean diplomats are scheduled to meet in Geneva on Monday and Tuesday to see about resuming the negotiations, which also include South Korea, Japan and Russia as well as China. North Korea walked out on talks in 2009 _ and exploded a second nuclear-test device _ but now wants to re-engage.
Li told the North Korean premier that China supports North Korean efforts "to take the right direction for engagement and dialogues, resume the six-party talks at an early date," Xinhua reported.
China has for years urged North Korea to refrain from ratcheting up tensions and to undertake serious reforms to strengthen an anemic economy that is failing to meet basic needs for its people. The visit of the Chinese vice premier is highlighting North Korea's growing dependence on China.
Ahead of Li's arrival Sunday, Xinhua reported that China-North Korean trade nearly doubled in the first seven months of the year, rising to $3.1 billion, an 87 percent increase over the same period in 2010.
North Korea relies heavily on China for food and fuel aid and many consumer products. Chinese companies are the main investors in North Korean mining, and the sides recently signed agreements on road building and jointly developing an industrial park on an island near the Chinese city of Dandong.
"The economic and trade cooperation between the two countries has shown great potential, with bilateral trade and investment volume reaching new highs," Xinhua said, citing the Chinese ambassador to Pyongyang, Liu Hongcai.
Bilateral trade between China and North Korea still is dwarfed by economic ties between China and South Korea, which is projected to hit about $250 billion for all of 2011.