Chinese President Hu Jintao reiterates support for North Korean leadership
BEIJING - China's president on Saturday welcomed North Korea's election of a new slate of Communist Party leaders and promised to maintain close ties - an expected but important affirmation by the North's principal ally.
The comments were Hu Jintao's first on the new leadership since a key ruling-party conference in North Korea last week at which the youngest son of ruler Kim Jong Il was introduced to the world and given key posts, confirming speculation he was being groomed to eventually succeed his ailing 68-year-old father.
Hu said China's Communist Party will work with North Korea's ruling party to "strengthen communication and coordination in regional and international affairs and continue endeavors for the region's peace, stability and common development," according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency. He was speaking during a meeting with a North Korean delegation.
During the recent Workers' Party convention in Pyongyang, Kim's son, Kim Jong Eun, was given senior party positions after being elevated to four-star general the day before the meeting.
China is North Korea's most important ally, so it was not surprising to observers that Hu congratulated the regime's new leaders, saying they would bring about "new achievements." But the message affirmed that China stands behind the impoverished and increasingly isolated country as a transition is made - support that is vital to its survival.
"The Chinese backing will empower Kim Jong Eun in the succession process," said Kim Yong-hyun, an expert on North Korea at Seoul's Dongguk University.
In August, when Kim Jong Il visited China, there were reports that he had brought along his 20-something son, though that has not been confirmed. The trip led to speculation that Kim may have introduced his son to Chinese officials to win their understanding on the succession.
It is not clear whether the new leadership in North Korea - which continues with its missile and nuclear programs in defiance of U.N. and other sanctions - intends to change its combative stance toward the international community. Only hours after the party conference ended, the regime again threatened to expand its nuclear arsenal.
While North Korea has expressed willingness to rejoin international talks aimed at dismantling its nuclear programs, the Obama administration has said it must first take specific steps to demonstrate its sincerity. North Korea pulled out of the negotiations last year after an uproar over a suspected missile test.