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China affirms N. Korea ties with 'candid' official visit

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 10, 2010; A09

TOKYO - North Korean leader Kim Jong Il met Thursday in Pyongyang with a top Chinese diplomat, North Korea's official state media said, as the two countries boosted their "friendly and cooperative relations."

According to the North Korean account, Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo conveyed a greeting from President Hu Jintao and presented Kim with a gift, reinforcing the cozy Pyongyang-Beijing relationship that has drawn recent criticism from the United States and other nations involved in the six-party talks about North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

Since North Korea's deadly artillery attack on a South Korean island last month, top officials in Washington have described China as an enabler for Pyongyang's aggressions - providing aid but little influence, calling for peace on the Korean peninsula but rarely condemning the North's behavior.

China's Xinhua news agency described the Kim-Dai meeting as "candid," saying the two "reached consensus on bilateral relations."

A team of U.S. diplomats, led by Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, plans to visit China next week, in part to convey a message of concern to Beijing. "It is critically important that China continue to play a strong role making clear to North Korea that there are consequences for its actions," Steinberg said on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, U.S. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, urged China to use its influence over North Korea to signal disapproval of the North's activities.

As Kim and Dai held their meeting Thursday, North Korea also issued its first detailed rationale for the Nov. 23 attack on Yeonpyeong island, questioning the disputed maritime border and claiming the water that surrounds the island as its own.

In a statement carried by the Korean Central News Agency, North Korea called the border "bogus" and said that Yeonpyeong island - where two South Korean marines and two civilians died in the shelling - is "located deep inside the territorial waters of the DPRK."

South Korea had been conducting military drills on the day of the attack. After unleashing its barrage on the island, and drawing return fire from troops stationed there, North Korea accused the South of firing first - into North-controlled waters.

That claim initially baffled South Korean officials, who noted that their military had been firing west, away from the maritime border. But Thursday, North Korea said the direction of the firing didn't matter because it controls all water around the island.

"If any live shell firing is conducted from there, shells are bound to drop inside the territorial waters of the DPRK," the North said.

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