March 15, 2018 / 2:36 AM / 6 months ago

China, Russia welcome Korean peace efforts with diplomacy in overdrive

SEOUL (Reuters) - China’s President Xi Jinping offered encouragement for South Korea’s initiative to nurture peaceful engagement with North Korea, and Russia also expressed support, the South Korean official leading diplomatic efforts said on Thursday.

South Korea's National Security Office chief Chung Eui-yong arrives at Incheon International Airport in Incheon, South Korea, March 15, 2018. Yonhap via REUTERS

During the past week, National Security Office head Chung Eui-yong briefed officials in Beijing and Moscow following his dramatic success in arranging summits between the North Korean, South Korean and U.S. leaders.

“Xi Jinping offered a Chinese phrase that says ‘once hard ice melts, spring comes and flowers bloom’ to describe the situation on the Korean peninsula and expressed his willingness to support the current situation,” Chung told reporters on his return to Incheon International Airport.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un told the South Korean delegation led by Chung that he was open to addressing denuclearizing with the United States, an offer that led to U.S. President Trump agreeing to meet Kim for a summit expected to happen sometime in May.

There was growing speculation on Thursday that Trump and Kim will meet Sweden, after its foreign ministry announced North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho was arriving imminently for two days of talks with his Swedish counterpart, Margot Wallstrom.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) meets with Republic of Korea's National Security Advisor Chung Eui-Yong (L) and South Korean Ambassador to China Noh Young-min (not pictured) at the Great Hall of The People, in Beijing, China March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Etienne Oliveau/Pool/

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is set to hold a summit with the North’s Kim by the end of April.

The South’s preparation committee for the inter-Korean summit, led by Moon’s chief of staff Im Jong-seok, will hold its first official meeting on Friday, presidential spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom told a briefing.

The committee is comprised of presidential and government officials including the ministers of unification, foreign affairs and defense, Kim said.

Separately, a South Korean official said it was too early to discuss joint economic projects with Pyongyang.

The same official said China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi would visit Seoul on Tuesday for talks with South Korean security officials.

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The flurry of diplomatic activity comes after a year-long verbal spat between Kim Jong Un and Trump, with tensions exacerbated by multiple missile and nuclear tests by the North which has said it will forge on with its nuclear program to protect its regime.

“China and Russia agreed to continue cooperation to uphold the peace that has been created, as well as the momentum for stability through close communication,” Chung said.

North Korea has friendly ties with both Beijing and Moscow, and China is by far its biggest trading partner.

Pyongyang has remained silent over its agreement for the summits since Chung returned from the North, although officials in Seoul have said they expect to continue working talks soon to work out details for the inter-Korean summit.

Ri’s sudden visit to Sweden spurred talk that the summit could take place there. Sweden’s embassy in Pyongyang represents U.S. diplomatic interests in North Korea in the absence of U.S. diplomatic relations with the country.

(Corrects paragraph 16 name of N. Korean to “Ri”, not “Rong”.)

Additional reporting by Josh Smith in SEOUL, Chang-Ran Kim in TOKYO, and Johan Sennero and Daniel Dickson in STOCKHOLM; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore

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