CHINESE Premier Li Peng begins a visit to South Korea today to reassure Seoul's wary leadership on the results of the US-North Korea nuclear pact signed Oct. 21. He also intends to discuss China's future plans to import South Korean reactors similar to ones promised to North Korea.
During his five-day trip, the highest-ranking Chinese visit since normalization between Beijing and Seoul two years ago, Mr. Li is expected to sign an agreement allowing South Korea to bid on nuclear-power construction projects in China and opening the door for imports of South Korean nuclear plants in the future, according to Chinese and South Korean officials here.
Li will also try to assuage South Korean doubts about the US-North Korean accord in which Seoul is poised to play the key role of providing safe nuclear reactors to North Korea, a longtime Chinese ally. Under the accord, a consortium including the United States, Japan, and South Korea, will provide two light-water nuclear reactors to the North in exchange for Pyongyang freezing its alleged weapons program and opening its facilities to international inspection.
South Korea is uneasy and skeptical about the agreement that allows the North to postpone inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency during the five-year construction period of the new reactors.
On the other hand, China, a reluctant and uncomfortable mediator in the nuclear standoff with Pyongyang, has applauded the agreement that eases international pressure on Beijing to intervene with its volatile North Korean allies and in effect grants the North the Western recognition long sought by Beijing.
Throughout the nuclear crisis between Washington and Pyongyang, China insisted on a negotiated solution because it does not want North Korea to become a nuclear power, nor does it want international pressure to destabilize its Communist neighbor.
``In light of the great strides made in economic exchanges, we hope the two countries will work together on ways to resolve the [North Korean] issue that holds the key to stabilizing and preserving peace on the Korean peninsula,'' says a South Korean diplomat in Beijing.
``This agreement lets the Chinese off the hook because they do not want a chaotic North Korea on their border,'' says a Western diplomat in Beijing. ``At the same time, they want to be close to South Korea and lure investment and technology from Seoul.''
Li's visit is part of a broad Chinese initiative to forge closer ties with less critical Asian governments and a regional front against pressure from the US and other Western countries. In the run-up to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Indonesia next month, Chinese President Jiang Zemin will also visit Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam.
The nuclear pact between Beijing and Seoul and an aviation accord opening direct flights between the two capitals are expected to lead to advances in automobiles, aircraft, telecommunications, and high-tech television systems, Korean diplomats say.
Trade between China and South Korea reached $11.4 billion in 1993 and is expected to top $12 billion this year. China is South Korea's third-largest trading partner, while Seoul is ranked seventh among countries trading with China. Korean analysts predict trade volume between the two countries could reach $20 billion within the next three years, putting Seoul's trade ties with China on the same level as Chinese trade with Japan.
South Korean conglomerates are rushing to invest in high technology and construction projects in China, while Korean banks are helping finance Chinese infrastructure projects.