China's Xi visits S.Korea as ties strengthen, wary eye on the North

SEOUL, July 3 Wed Jul 2, 2014 11:28pm EDT

SEOUL, July 3 (Reuters) - Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in South Korea on Thursday, hoping to strengthen commercial and diplomatic ties while Seoul is expected to push Beijing to increase pressure on ally North Korea to end its pursuit of nuclear arms.

The visit will include Xi's fifth summit meeting with South Korean President Park Geun-hye since both took office last year.

The events in the South will be watched closely in the North, which has test-fired short-range missiles and rockets from its east coast three times in the past week and threatened on Thursday to continue doing so.

North Korea's nuclear and missile programmes, for which it is under U.N. sanctions, and its plan to hold a fourth nuclear test, will be high on the agenda, officials in Seoul said.

Xi, accompanied by a delegation of Chinese business heavyweights, will court stronger economic ties with South Korea, a major trade partner, and express commitment to conclude a free trade deal to boost an already robust commercial relationship worth $230 billion annually.

"China and South Korea as neighbours must jointly respond to challenges in the security environment while sharing the opportunity for development that peace and stability of the region offers," Xi said in a column in carried in major South Korean newspapers on Thursday.

Cultural exchange is also booming, with South Korea's public perception of China and its products steadily improving due in large part to the efforts of their leaders to forge better ties, a study said.

"The favorability of China is currently at its highest point, and the 2014 summit will drive that number higher," said the Seoul-based Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

Two-thirds of about 2,100 South Koreans polled recently by Asan said ties with China have improved since Park took office early last year.

There was a favourable perception of China also on the issue of security cooperation, an indication of growing expectations for Beijing to take a major role on easing regional tensions surrounding the North's arms programme, Asan said.

North Korea has sent a flurry of mixed signals over the past week, shifting some of the spotlight from Xi's visit. It tested two short-range missiles on Sunday in violation of a United Nations ban. On Monday, it said it would put two American tourists on trial for crimes against the state.

On Monday, Pyongyang also made a fresh proposal for peace with the South, while declaring just hours before Xi's arrival on Thursday that it will continue to fire missiles regardless of what it said was U.S. pressure to stifle its right to self-defence.

China, the only major ally of North Korea, is usually very guarded in its opinion on Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programmes and is careful not to be seen as taking sides.

Its state news agency Xinhua published a commentary on Thursday in which it said the tensions on the Korean peninsula were due to hostility between North Korea and the United States, the main ally of the South.

"Washington's counter-productive obsession with sanctions and intimidation and Pyongyang's understandable sense of insecurity and unhelpful violations of U.N. resolutions have only exacerbated the feud," Xinhua said.

"China and South Korea are natural and major stakeholders in the Korean peninsula issue. A nuclear-free and peaceful Korean peninsula is what all nations in the region deserve but have awaited far too long."

South Korea's Presidential Blue House said Park and Xi were expected to sign more than 10 joint documents pledging deeper cooperation including the setup of a won-yuan currency market, and a push for a free trade deal.

They are also expected to discuss steps that would be needed to end North Korea's nuclear weapons programme and establish a permanent peace regime on the Korean peninsula, it said. (Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Tony Munroe and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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