Park: China's Xi very firm in opposition to nuclear N. Korea

SEOUL, July 10 (Yonhap) -- Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang were very firm in their opposition to North Korea's nuclear programs, South Korean President Park Geun-hye said Wednesday of her recent meetings with them.

North Korea was a key topic when Park held a summit with Xi on June 27. After the meeting, the two sides issued a joint communique in which they agreed to work together to make the Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons, but the statement fell short of expectations that China could express a firmer commitment for Pyongyang's denuclearization.

Critics said China's insistence on using the term "denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," instead of "denuclearization of North Korea," suggests that Pyongyang's most important ally is still reluctant to use more of its leverage over its wayward neighbor.

On Wednesday, however, Park said the Chinese leaders were much firmer in private discussions.

"On North Korea issues, in particular, I was able to forge a sort of consensus," Park said during a meeting with chief editorial writers from major news organizations, including Yonhap News Agency, recalling her meetings with Xi, Li and other Chinese leaders.

"This or that can be said about the expression of the Korean Peninsula denuclearization, but it became like that as we gave China considerations. When I actually met with President Xi Jingping and Premier Li Keqiang and the nuclear issue came up, their thoughts were firm that nuclear weapons are never acceptable," she said.

In particular, Park cited Premier Li as telling her that water quality deteriorated in the Amnok River on the North's border with China (called Yalu River in China) after Pyongyang's nuclear test, underscoring the real damage the North's atomic blast has caused to everyday lives of residents on both sides.

As a key provider of economic aid and diplomatic protection to North Korea, China has long been considered the only country with any meaningful influence over Pyongyang. But Beijing has been reluctant to use that leverage over concerns that pushing the North too hard could hurt its national interests.

However, China has been taking an unusually tough stance on Pyongyang since the provocative regime pressed ahead with a long-range rocket launch in December and its third nuclear test in February in defiance of China's appeals.

At a summit with U.S. President Barack Obama early last month, Xi said that North Korea will never be recognized as a nuclear weapons state and that it should abandon its nuclear aspirations, an unusually blunt stance given Beijing's traditional policy of embracing its ideological neighbor.

That raised speculation that China could be shifting its policy focus on Pyongyang as the prospect of a nuclear-armed North Korea has become a valid concern for it and may spark a regional arms race.

On Wednesday, Park also criticized the North for making insulting remarks about the South.

"If we are going to build trust, each side should first be careful about what it says," Park said during the meeting with the senior journalists. "They make remarks that we find it difficult even to relay, claiming their dignity (was hurt). It is not that it is only them that have dignity. The people of the Republic of Korea have dignity too."

Earlier in the day, officials of the two Koreas began a second round of negotiations to work out conditions for reopening a suspended joint industrial complex in the North's border city of Kaesong. Pyongyang unilaterally shut down the complex in early April amid high security tensions.

Park stressed that the most important point for the South in the ongoing negotiations is to make sure that the factory park will never be shut down abruptly again. She said the South won't rush to restart the complex unless the North first guarantees there will be no such suspension.

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