- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

BEIJING (AP) - China expressed concern Tuesday over tensions on the Korean peninsula, as North Korea’s premier arrived in Beijing ahead of his country’s plans to launch a rocket next month.

While the U.S. and others have condemned the impending launch, China _ North Korea’s biggest benefactor and longtime communist ally _ has avoided directly criticizing it. Instead, Beijing has called for a toning down of regional tensions, though they have continued to flare, most recently prompting the North to shut its border with the South for several days.

“At present, the situation on the Korean peninsula is rather complicated, with an increasing number of uncertain factors,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang at a regularly scheduled press conference. “We express concern over this.”

Premier Kim Yong Il began a five-day trip Tuesday to mark 60 years of diplomatic relations between North Korea. He will be meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.

But North Korea’s planned rocket launch is expected to top the agenda. The North says it plans to launch a communications satellite in early April, but many suspect it will be a cover for testing long-range missile technology. North Korea is banned from conducting such launches under a U.N. Security Council resolution.

The United States, along with other governments, has voiced strong objections, saying it would be “provocative and destabilizing.”

On Tuesday, Qin said he hoped that “relevant parties can work to settle the issues through dialogue … and maintain peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.”

Beijing will also likely push Pyongyang to return to the table for negotiations aimed at denuclearizing the North. Talks stalled last December over how to conduct verification of its nuclear facilities.

Tensions have intensified in recent weeks as Seoul and Washington began their joint annual military exercises across South Korea last week. The 12-day drills involve American and South Korean troops as well as a U.S. aircraft carrier.

Angrily calling the drills preparation for war, Pyongyang cut off the last remaining communications hot line between the two Koreas last week, ordered its troops on alert and twice banned border crossings. The North said the hot line will remain severed until the joint drills end this Friday, though it reopened the border Tuesday.

Kim, who is making his first trip to China since taking office in 2007, is accompanied by a delegation that includes government ministers for agriculture, culture, metal industry and foreign trade. Kim arrived in the capital Tuesday morning and promptly flew to eastern Shandong province for a one-day trip, the Foreign Ministry said.

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