BEIJING – China's president on Saturday welcomed North Korea's election of a new slate of communist party leaders and promised to continue close ties — an expected but important affirmation of the two countries' relationship from the North's closest ally.
The comments were Hu Jintao's first on the new leadership since a key ruling party conference in North Korea at which the youngest son of ruler Kim Jong Il was introduced to the world and given key posts that confirmed 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, Kim's son, Kim Jong Un, was given key party positions after being elevated to four-star general the day before the meeting.
China is North Korea's most important ally, so it's unsurprising 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 Un 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 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's not clear if the new leadership in North Korea — which continues to develop its missile and nuclear programs in defiance of U.N. and other sanctions — will 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, Washington has said the North must first take specific moves to demonstrate its sincerity. North Korea pulled out of the negotiations last year after an uproar over a suspected missile test.
(This version CORRECTS that Kim Jong Un was elevated to general a day before the meeting)