China, South Korea Consult on North Korea Crisis

While the U.N. Security Council debates a resolution on sanctions against North Korea, two leaders on the front lines of the crisis have been meeting. South Korea's president visited Beijing for talks with his Chinese counterpart on how to respond to North Korea's latest provocation.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

While the U.N. Security Council debates a resolution on sanctions against North Korea, two of its neighbors have been meeting.

South Korea's president traveled to Beijing for talks with his Chinese counterpart. China and South Korea are the closest thing that North Korea has to allies.

NPR's Louisa Lim joins us now. She's covering this story. What has come out of these talks in Beijing?

LOUISA LIM: Well, we've heard that there was a 50-minute meeting between President Hu Jintao of China and President Roh Moo-hyun of South Korea and that the two countries agreed to support appropriate and necessary measures by the U.N. And this it seems is a theoretical agreement to support measures in principle rather than an endorsement of the precise resolution which is being circulated by the U.N. Security Council at the moment.

But it seems that this crisis is in a way drawing these two countries closer together, because they're both North Korea's top trading partners and aid suppliers. Between them, China and South Korea account for two-thirds of North Korea's foreign trade. So they're both in a very difficult position. They're under international and domestic pressure to rethink their policies. But - and they say they're supporting sanctions.

But at the same time they're warning against overreacting, because both of them are very worried about what effect sanctions could have if the North was destabilized. They worry that - fears of North Korean refugees could pour across their borders. And it might not be in either country's national interest. So they are finding common cause in how to deal with North Korea, and they have agreed to step up cooperation on that issue.

INSKEEP: And you mentioned that they say that they'll support appropriate measures at the United Nations. Of course, the United States has been weakening the resolution that it tries to get passed through the Security Council, partly in order to get the support of China. It sounds like their idea of appropriate is not the same as the U.S.

LIM: That's right. China is very concerned about what affect that this - any sanctions that the U.N. would have. Also, its calculation of its national interest is of course not the same as the U.S. calculation of its national interest. And of course, being a member of the U.N., the five permanent members of the Security Council, China has a veto, and so it must be taken into account in this.

So at the moment, it does look as if China is having some effect in weakening the resolution which is being discussed at the moment.

INSKEEP: Well, Louisa, let's talk about the other neighbor involved in this meeting. How much consensus is there inside South Korea over what to do next?

LIM: Well, it seems actually there are very bitter divisions in South Korea. President Roh Moo-hyun himself has acknowledged that the sunshine policy is under pressure. This is this policy of engagement that the South Koreans have had.

And the opposition now wants to scrap two large joint projects. This is the Mount Kumgang tourist project, where South Korean tourists visit the North and an industrial zone where poorly paid North Korean workers make clothing and kitchen utensils for South Korean companies.

Both of these projects have been described as cash cows for the North Koreans. And reports in the South Korean media say that over the last eight years they've accounted for about $4.7 billion to the North, and that's money which the opposition says could have been used to fund the North's nuclear program. So there's a lot of pressure on the South Koreans to change their engagement policy at the moment.

INSKEEP: Okay. Thanks very much. That's NPR's Louisa Lim joining us this morning from Shanghai, in China.

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