Breaking a drawn-out cooling-off period after Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests, the top diplomats of North Korea and China held talks Monday at a regional security conference in Vientiane, Laos.
The session between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his North Korean counterpart Ri Yong-ho took place on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum for the first time since Ri took office last May. His predecessor Ri Su-yong and Wang did not meet face-to-face during last year’s event.
“The meeting was part of normal communications between the two nations,” a man who said he was the North Korean delegation’s spokesman told reporters. “So the two ministers discussed the issue of developing bilateral relations.”
But he kept mum about questions on the nuclear issues or South Korea’s plan to station the U.S.’ Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system at home, which has been staunchly opposed by Pyongyang and Beijing. Ri also did not answer any questions on his way to the meeting room.
Though details were not immediately available, the two officials were expected to explore ways to put their countries’ relations back on track, which appeared to have been eroding amid the North’s persistent nuclear ambitions and provocations.
The encounter is unlikely to bring about a sweeping turnaround in the relationship given China’s steadfast position against a nuclear-armed North Korea, despite Pyongyang’s pursuit of its biggest patron’s recognition.
Yet propelled by Seoul and Washington’s recent announcement on the THAAD deployment, Beijing may seek to better embrace its isolated neighbor and restart exchanges. This has raised concerns of a weakening in global collaboration or easing of pressure over the North’s nuclear program.
Even before the talks kicked off, the two ministers showed rapport, with Wang coming out of the room to greet and shake hands with the arriving Ri, and then laying his hand on his counterpart’s back as they went in.
Inside, Wang “congratulated” him on the new duty, followed by Ri blessing the two-way ties and thanking Wang for an earlier congratulatory message, apparently referring to the exchange of letters in commemoration of the 55th anniversary of their defense treaty early this month. They were also spotted smiling together across a table.
The meeting was widely expected, as they had given strong indications upon their arrival in the Laotian capital Sunday on the same flight from the southern Chinese city of Kunming. They “shared greetings” aboard the plane, Wang said, while Ri slightly nodded with a faint smile when asked about his plan for one-on-one talks with him.
The cordial mood contrasted with Wang’s talks late Sunday with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, when he expressed regret over Seoul’s THAAD stationing decision which “hurt the basis of trust” with Beijing.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (left) shakes hands with North Korean Foreign Minster Ri Yong-ho in Vientiane, Laos, Monday. Yonhap
The Chinese diplomat also took issue with the absence of “communications in advance between colleagues,” pressing Yun to take “substantive steps” to safeguard the relationship.
Yun, for his part, defended the plan as a “responsible government’s self-defensive measure” to protect national security and people’s safety.
The back-to-back meetings marked a heated diplomatic battle, with each regional player ramping up its offensive over Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, the U.S. missile shield and the South China Sea disputes.
Earlier in the day, Yun held separate talks with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and reviewed plans to launch a foundation on Thursday in Seoul for the victims of Japan’s sexual servitude during World War II in line with their settlement last December.
They lauded the agreement saying that it had “set a milestone” in moving bilateral ties forward and pledged to continue further for its “thorough enforcement,” Seoul’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
At the session’s outset, Kishida said the relationship has now been placed “on a normal path” since the accord, pointing to their recent phone conversations after North Korea’s recent missile test as the “outcome of improving ties” and smooth communications.
Yun was scheduled for separate talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry later in the day, after a meeting the previous day with Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s new foreign minister and democracy fighter. He also met with the foreign ministers of Vietnam, Laos, Brunei, Singapore, the Philippines, New Zealand and Australia, among others.