By Kiyoshi Takenaka
TOKYO (Reuters) - Leaders from China and Japan will likely agree to work together to help maintain stability on the Korean peninsula following the death of North Korean ruler Kim Jong-il when they meet next week, but anything more than platitudes will be hard to come by.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda will meet President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao in Beijing during a two-day trip from Sunday as the world waits to see where North Korea is headed under Kim Jong-un, the youngest son of the destitute nuclear state's late leader.
Noda's visit to China, North Korea's biggest backer, was arranged before Kim Jong-il's death was announced by the unpredictable hermit state on Monday.
"Instability on the peninsula would be in nobody's interest," said Sun Cheng, professor of Japanese studies at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing.
"The six-party talks are likely to be on hold for some time, and so is any progress on the North Korean nuclear issue, but there'll be a consensus between China and Japan -- as well as the United States, South Korea and Russia -- on preserving stability on the Korean peninsula."
The six-party denuclearization talks, involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia, broke down in 2008 and United Nations inspectors were expelled from North Korea in 2009.
Ensuring stability and establishing working relations with the impoverished nation is especially important for Japan, which is well within range of North Korea's long-range missiles and wants Pyongyang to resolve the emotive issue of the fate of Japanese citizens kidnapped to help train spies decades ago.
"It goes without saying that China can play an important role in solving abduction issues. Naturally, we will be working hard on China (to help settle the problem)," Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba told reporters on Thursday.
THE ROAD TO PYONGYANG
Experts agree China has the biggest role to play in efforts to keep North Korea on an even keel. Japan's ability to act is limited by the feud over the abductees and historical animosity born of Tokyo's 1910-1945 colonization of the Korean peninsula.
"The road to Pyongyang is through Beijing right now," said Richard Samuels, director of the MIT-Japan Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"I'm sure the Japanese side will implore the Chinese side to use their good offices to help North Korea find a way to be more Burmese," he said, referring to Myanmar, whose new civilian government has pledged to re-engage with the world community.
Promises of any concrete steps on North Korea, however, are unlikely to emerge from the Sino-Japanese summit.
"Of course they will make comments like 'We will maintain close communication for the sake of the peninsula's stability' but not much more than that," said Hiroko Maeda, a research fellow at PHP Institute's Center for International and Strategic Studies in Tokyo.
"No one knows how the situation in the North will develop."
North Korean worries aside, Noda and Chinese leaders are expected to try to improve ties between the world's second- and third-largest economies, strained by a maritime dispute last year that chilled relations deeply.
But major breakthroughs appear unlikely.
"THREE FEET OF ICE"
"Overall, Noda's visit will be an opportunity to improve relations. But we should not have excessive expectations," said Huang Dahui, professor specializing in Sino-Japanese relations at Renmin University in Beijing.
"In Sino-Japanese relations we say that it takes more than one cold day for three feet of ice to form ... We can't expect that one visit will give relations a total remake."
Sino-Japanese ties deteriorated last year when Japan detained a Chinese skipper whose trawler collided with Japanese patrol boats near a chain of disputed islands in the East China Sea. The area is potentially rich in gas and oil reserves.
The leaders are expected to discuss ways to restart stalled talks on the proposed joint development of gas fields in the East China Sea and to achieve an early start of negotiations for three-way free trade talks among Japan, China and South Korea.
On the financial front, Japan is in talks to buy Chinese government debt to strengthen economic ties, and Japanese Finance Minister Jun Azumi said this week the matter needs to be addressed at the summit meetings.
(Additional reporting by Linda Sieg in TOKYO and Chris Buckley in BEIJING)