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Analysis: First the North wanted to meet South Korea. Then the US. Now China. What’s the deal with this erratic charm offensive?
SEOUL, South Korea — You may find something odd about China hosting talks with North Korea on Wednesday.
The invitation comes on the heels of an erratic week during which North Korea proposed negotiations and then snubbed South Korea.
This week, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui will meet North Korea's First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan in Beijing.
A Chinese spokeswoman insisted the government is trying to stay in “close communication” with its neighbor to “promote each side to quickly restart dialogue and consultation."
But why now?
Some analysts in Seoul say the reason could be straightforward: that Beijing has an interest in encouraging Pyongyang to gradually open up because it will bear the brunt of a volatile nuclear regime on its border.
China is not an ardent political ally of North Korea. But the two countries are economically tethered through trade and a number of highways and high-speed railways being built near their mutual border.
Yet Beijing harbors misgivings over North Korea’s decision-making. In February, it advised Pyongyang not to carry out its third nuclear test, Reuters reported.
The isolated state insisted on detonating a nuclear device. The blast prompted the United Nations, with the backing of China, to pass another round of sanctions targeting its state financial bank.
China has some incentive to cooperate with the United States.
In April, Secretary of State John Kerry attempted a bargain with Chinese leaders. He promised that Washington would draw down parts of its anti-ballistic missile system in Asia, which Beijing has protested in the past.
But Washington would only follow through if China “put some teeth” into convincing Pyongyang to denuclearize, Kerry said.
For two months, Pyongyang went on a tirade of war threats thanks in part to the UN sanctions.
The brouhaha died in April, and now North Korea claims it wants to go back to the negotiating table.
On Sunday, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the state mouthpiece, announced that Pyongyang was seeking talks with Washington.
Washington snickered. The country will be judged "by its actions and not its words,” a US State Department spokeswoman said.
Another possible reason for the brush-off: the announcement came a week after Pyongyang agreed similar talks with South Korea and then backed out.
North Korean leaders insisted their counterparts in Seoul were putting forward a delegate with too low a rank to meet with their vice minister.
Today, the Chosun Ilbo, a South Korean newspaper, cited a military source claiming that North Korea may have moved attack boats toward a forward base at the Northern Limit Line (NLL). The allegation has not been publicly confirmed by other government bodies.
The NLL is a disputed boundary in the West Sea, off the coast of North and South Korea.
It’s been a regular zone of confrontation when North Korea doesn’t extract aid and concessions from its neighbor, experts say.
In 2010, Seoul accused the North of sinking a naval corvette and then bombarding an island with artillery shells. The cataclysms together left 50 South Koreans dead.
If the newspaper is correct that patrol boats are near the area, North Korea could be once again mixing its diplomatic gestures with a bit of stick wagging.
The regime, many analysts say, is ultimately focused on survival. It will do what it can to get much-needed funds from the world.