By Chris Buckley and Ben Blanchard
BEIJING (Reuters) - China said on Monday that it was "distressed" to learn of the death of North Korea's long-time leader Kim Jong-il, but remained confident that the North would remain united and that the two neighbors would keep up their cooperation.
"We were distressed to learn of the unfortunate passing of the senior-most North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, and we express our grief about this and extend our condolences to the people of North Korea," the Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ma Zhaoxu, said, according to a statement issued by the Xinhua news agency.
Ma praised Kim as a "great leader" who made "important contributions" to relations with China.
"We are confident that the North Korean people will be able to turn their anguish into strength and unify as one," said Ma.
"China and North Korea will strive together to continue making positive contributions to consolidating and developing the traditional friendship between our two parties, governments and peoples, and to preserving the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula and the region."
Impoverished and squeezed by international sanctions for conducting a series of nuclear and missile tests from 2006, North Korea has reached out to Moscow and Beijing for help to fill the gap left by the drying up of South Korean and the U.S. economic assistance.
Over the past 18 months, Kim, who in the past rarely travelled abroad, visited China four times and in August made his first trip to Russia in nearly a decade.
Kim's visits were mainly aimed at winning economic support, and raised speculation he may finally be opening one of the world's most closed economies.
During Kim's China visit in May, the two sides vowed that their alliance, "sealed in blood", would pass on to their successors.
For China, its much smaller and poorer neighbor is both a buffer and a burden.
China sees North Korea as a strategic barrier against the United States and its regional allies. But that barrier comes with an economic and diplomatic price.
As the North's ties with South Korea and much of the outside world have soured, Kim has leaned more on ally Beijing for support, which has cost China both in economic aid and in strains with South Korea and other nations alarmed by North Korea's nuclear weapons development and military brinkmanship.
China has sought to draw North Korea closer with incentives, and bilateral trade hit $3.1 billion in the first seven months of 2011, an 87 percent increase from the same period last year, according to Chinese customs statistics. Growth was propelled by a 169.2 percent jump in the value of Chinese imports.
Beijing has shored up its support for Pyongyang in the past two years, despite regional tension over North Korea's actions, including nuclear weapon tests in 2006 and 2009 that drew U.N. sanctions backed by China.
(Editing by Ken Wills)