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Q+A: What can high-level China-North Korea contact bring?

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korean leader Kim Jong-il pledged to work to end his country’s nuclear program through multilateral dialogue when he received a Chinese delegation and a message from Chinese President Hu Jintao on Friday.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao will likely visit North Korea early next month, South Korea’s foreign minister said this week, becoming the most senior foreign visitor to Pyongyang since its second nuclear test in May this year.

Following are some points on what China means to North Korea and how the visit plays out in the backdrop of international efforts to jump start stalled disarmament talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear arms program.

WHAT DOES CHINA MEAN TO NORTH KOREA?

China is the closest that the North has to a major ally, and it has stood steadfast in backing the isolated state through decades of brinkmanship by Pyongyang as it built a nuclear arms program. Beijing has ensured North Korea was fed and clothed through famine and dire economic conditions. But Pyongyang has seen in recent months an angrier Beijing after its second nuclear test in May that drew U.N. sanctions that China signed onto. China has been under intense pressure from the United States and South Korea to join in the sanctions.

For China, North Korea has been a buffer from U.S. influence into its mainland through capitalist South Korea. But it has feared a nuclear armed North Korea could trigger a nuclear arms race in the region.

WHY WOULD WEN JIABAO VISIT?

The primary reason for Wen’s reported visit is the two neighboring communist nations’ “year of friendship.” The newly founded People’s Republic of China formally established relations with the communist North on October 6, 1949, and Wen’s trip appears intended to mark that date.

Even as it backed the U.N. sanctions, China has also been careful to avoid an outright rupture in ties with the North, and throughout the nuclear standoff the two countries have continued activities to celebrate their alliance. The failure of a senior Chinese leader to visit for the anniversary would be seen as a snub in Pyongyang.

WHAT DOES THE VISIT MEAN FOR THE NUCLEAR DISPUTE?

Wen’s visit is likely to reflect the ambivalence that marks China’s ties with North Korea.

China wants North Korea to stop developing nuclear weapons, but it also fears that excessive pressure on the North that could unleash dangerous instability there, possibly sending a flood of refugees into adjacent northeast China.

Therefore, during his visit Wen is likely to swaddle any admonition to the North about the nuclear dispute in reassuring language about bilateral ties.

WHAT DOES CHINA WANT TO SEE?

By hosting the stalled six-way talks through five years, China has seen its diplomatic status grow as an arbitrator of a tense security conflict. Beijing wants nothing more than the six-party talks back on track, and an ultimate pledge by the North to end its nuclear arms program in return for aid and diplomatic rewards.

Additional reporting by Chris Buckley in Beijing; Editing by Jeremy Laurence

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