- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

BEIJING (AP) - North Korea’s premier arrived in Beijing on Tuesday on an official visit to his country’s biggest ally amid heightened tensions in the region due to Pyongyang’s plans for a rocket launch next month.

Premier Kim Yong Il began his five-day trip that will include talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, and a ceremony marking 60 years of diplomatic relations between the two nations.

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 a long-range missile test. North Korea is banned from firing either device under a U.N. Security Council resolution prohibiting it from ballistic activity.

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

China _ North Korea’s biggest benefactor and longtime communist ally _ has avoided directly criticizing the rocket launch but has called for a toning down of regional tensions.

On Tuesday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang again stated that China hopes all parties involved “do more to contribute” toward regional peace.

“We believe maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia is in the common interest of the relevant parties,” he said.

Beijing will also likely push Pyongyang to return to the table for six-country 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.

Kim, who is making his first trip to China since taking office in 2007, is being 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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