March 17, 2009 / 3:10 AM / 10 years ago

North Korean premier lauds China as regional anchor

BEIJING, March 17 (Reuters) - North Korean Premier Kim Yong-il praised China as a bulwark of regional stability before arriving for a visit on Tuesday that underscores the two nations’ friendship while neighbours decry Pyongyang’s missile plans.

Kim is no relative of the North’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-il, and wields little military power, but his five-day trip signals China’s desire to woo North Korea as other powers warn of repercussions if it carries out a plan to fire a rocket between April 4 to 8.

The reclusive North has said the rocket will carry a satellite. Tokyo, Seoul and Washington have said it will be a long-range ballistic missile test in all but name.

In an interview with China’s official People’s Daily, Premier Kim said Beijing was a diplomatic anchor for his country in international turbulence.

“North Korea feels satisfied with the vigorously friendly relations with China during the current complex and changeable international trends,” he wrote in response to questions from the paper before his departure for China.

The bond, he wrote, will “make a real contribution to ensuring the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula, the northeast Asia region and the world”.

Other capitals have said a rocket launch would violate a U.N. Security Council resolution adopted in 2006 after an earlier missile test by the North.

China has so far avoided even muted threats, instead urging governments in stalled six-party talks aimed at the nuclear disarmament of North Korea to do more.

“We believe protecting the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula is in the interests of all concerned parties,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said last week, when asked about Pyongyang’s planned rocket launch.

Such mild language is likely to dominate at least public statements during Kim’s visit, which began on Tuesday and will probably focus on trade and goodwill rather than missiles and nuclear disarmament.

“YEAR OF FRIENDSHIP”

The two countries have called 2009 their “year of friendship”. China may not welcome a missile launch, but it does not want to discard North Korea as a partner.

“China hasn’t revealed what it will do if there is a (rocket) launch, but for now it doesn’t see any reason for departing from its customary language,” said Zhang Liangui, an expert on North Korea at the Central Party School, an institute in Beijing.

“China is especially careful in handling North Korea.”

Beijing hosts the six-party talks, which also bring together North and South Korea, the United States, Japan and Russia.

After the North held its first nuclear test explosion in October 2006, China rebuked the North for a “brazen” act. But generally China avoids open anger.

The two sides share a history of Communist comradeship against the United States and its allies during the Korean War.

China’s 1,416-km (880-mile) border with the North is an economic lifeline to the impoverished North, but also a floodgate against millions of potential refugees who could surge into China if the North collapses.

North Korea’s people endure “intolerable suffering” including starvation, torture and spying, a U.N. investigator, Vitit Muntarbhorn, said in Geneva on Monday [nLG72272].

He told the U.N. Human Rights Council the situation there was “dire and desperate”.

Making matters worse, North Korea has ordered international food aid workers to leave the country this month over a dispute with the United States, the Financial Times reported.

Pyongyang had told Washington that U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) staff would be barred from distributing food aid after March. It had also told U.S. non-governmental organisations to leave this month, and rescinded permission for other humanitarian groups to visit, the Financial Times said.

The WFP said earlier this month it had scaled back its food assistance programme in North Korea after several months of funding shortfalls, adding operations were at only 15 percent of planned levels.

It said it was decreasing the number of international monitoring staff, closing down field offices and re-focusing activities to a core minimum.

Editing by Nick Macfie and Dean Yates

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