South Korea’s President Lee Myung Bak arrived in Beijing today for the first high-level meeting between the nations since the death of former North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, China Daily reported.
Relations between the two nations have strained over the past few years due to China’s support for North Korea and disputes over fishing rights close to South Korea’s coast. However trade between China and South Korea continues to enjoy rapid growth.
The Associated Press reported that Kim Jong II’s death has opened the way for major changes in each country’s policy towards North Korea, saying that while the summit was initially planned to discuss fishing-fleet incursions, policy towards the North was expected to dominate the talks.
Also on the table was the formation of a regional free-trade agreement between China, Japan and South Korea. "If there is no strong opposition from inside the Republic of Korea [ROK], talks on the China-Japan-ROK FTA will be officially launched during the first half of this year, in May at the earliest," a source from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce told China Daily in a separate article.
China and South Korea mark the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations this year, reported South Korea’s Yonhap news agency. But while bilateral trade surged 34-fold in the past two decades to $220 billion in 2011, the two countries' relations have dissolved over the past 10 years.
Relations have moved from a "friendly and cooperative relationship" in 1998 to a "partnership" in 2003 to a "comprehensive partnership" in 2008 when Lee made his first visit to China, said Zhang Langui, a professor of the Institute for International Strategic Studies at the Party School of the Central Committee of China's Communist Party in China.
Differing opinions over North Korea are the major cause of disagreement. The South resents China’s support of the North and its failure to censure Pyongyang over incidents such as the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan or the shelling of the Yeonpyeong Islands in 2010. China is wary of Seoul’s close ties with the US and its hosting of US bases.
China is also seeking to prevent instability in the North that could prompt an influx of refugees crossing over the 880-mile border it shares with North Korea.
"It is problematic because China has appeared to take an attitude of protection and support for North Korea, while the North sometimes makes military provocations and implements some incorrect policies," South Korea’s ambassador to China, Lee Kyu Hyung told Yonhap.
Lee Myung Bak is expected to be in China for three days.