China says open to visit by new N.Korean leader

BEIJING - China said on Tuesday it was open to a visit by new North Korean leader Kim Jong-un following the death of his father Kim Jong-il, as President Hu Jintao visited the hermit state's embassy in Beijing to express his condolences.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin, speaking at a daily news briefing, initially said he had "no information"about whether Jong-un would be welcome to visit China.

But later he clarified: "I want to add that China and North Korea have always kept up high-level visits, and we welcome the North Korean leader to visit at a convenient time to both sides." He did not elaborate.

The remarks follow a message from China's central leadership on Monday that gave Beijing's support for isolated North Korea and expressed confidence in Kim Jong-un - Kim Jong-il's young and little-known successor.

Liu would not comment on Hu's visit to the North Korean embassy, a move that is another sign of Beijing's determination to protect its ties with Pyongyang as it enters an uncertain transition.

A brief Xinhua report did not say what Hu said during the visit. But his gesture - unusual for China's highest ranked leader - was enough to highlight Beijing's effort to shore up support for Pyongyang under the younger Kim.

Liu also said that Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi had spoken in the morning with his South Korean counterpart Kim Sung-hwan and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

All three agreed it was important to maintain peace and stability on the Korean peninsula, Liu said of the calls.

"China is willing to continue striving with all sides for the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula," Liu said.

South Korea and the United States are "willing to maintain close coordination and communication with the Chinese side", he added.

Impoverished and squeezed by international sanctions for conducting a series of nuclear and missile tests since 2006, North Korea has increasingly turned to Beijing for help to fill the gap left by the drying up of economic assistance from South Korea and the United States.

In turn, China has made clear that it wants to shore up North Korea as a buffer protecting its regional influence from the United States and its allies.

Over the 18 months before his death, Kim visited China four times, although in the past he rarely travelled abroad.

During Kim's China visit in May, the two sides vowed that their alliance, "sealed in blood", would pass on to their successors.