Top Chinese officials anxious to preserve 'stability' in the Korean peninsula held talks with their counterparts in Washington and Seoul on Tuesday following the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, as well as formalizing Beijing's support for his son and designated successor Kim Jong Un.
Foreign minister Yang Jiechi spoke by telephone to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and his South Korean counterpart Kim Sung Hwan "on the importance of ensuring security on the Korean peninsula," foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said on Tuesday. They agreed to maintain close communication, Liu said.
Kim's death has sparked widespread debate among Chinese netizens and official commentators over the direction North Korea will take under Kim Jong Un, with some fearing an increase in U.S. regional influence, and others hoping the country will undergo market reforms similar to those implemented by China in the 1980s.
"We can't completely rule out the possibility of chaos within North Korea at the moment," the Global Times, a paper with ties to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, quoted a top North Korea expert as saying on Tuesday.
Retired researcher Han Zhenshe of the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) told the paper that Pyongyang was having trouble ensuring a basic living standard for its citizens.
"North Korea has severe economic problems," Han said. "Civil livelihood is the most pressing issue on the government agenda, but they are having huge difficulties."
"With Kim Jong Il's death, ordinary North Koreans may have some expectations of change, though they are not sure where the country will go, and what kind of changes will come yet," he told the paper.
"Kim Jong Un faces great pressure in maintaining domestic stability."
Show of support
Nonetheless, Beijing has moved to allay such concerns with a strong show of support for Pyongyang, throwing its political support behind Kim Jong Un as North Korea's new leader.
Liu told a regular news briefing that China "welcomes a visit to China by the leader of [North] Korea when both sides [find it] convenient.''
China's official media has also chimed in with the idea of stability in the transition of power to the next generation of North Korean leaders.
Official commentators said relations between the two countries were unlikely to be changed by Kim Jong Il's death and the leadership succession.
China has been North Korean staunchest backer, politically and economically, since the end of the Korean War (1950-1953) in which Mao Zedong's troops fought alongside Korean communist forces against the U.S. and her allies.
However, tensions over North Korea's nuclear weapons program and territorial spats with South Korea, as well as Pyongyang's dependence on international aid and a flood of refugees across the border into China, have all strained a relationship that was once described as "closer than lips and teeth."
The English-language China Daily quoted Zhang Tingyan, China's first ambassador to South Korea, as saying, ''I don't see too many difficulties ahead, let alone radical changes.'' But he added: ''Of course, we can't rule out contingencies."
Those "contingencies" are likely to be on the minds of many officials in Beijing, as the untested, 20-year-old Kim takes the helm of the isolated Stalinist regime, overseen by a coterie of senior advisers.
Setting an example?
Many in China are wondering if North Korea can be persuaded to take the road of market reforms espoused by late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1979, as famine and political oppression make for an unstable border region in the northeast of the country.
The Global Times said Tuesday in an English-language editorial that China should act as a powerful and secure supporter of Pyongyang during the transition of power.
China should ''protect the country's transition of power from external interference, and ensure its freedom to choose its own path,'' the commentary said.
Meanwhile, President Hu Jintao paid a personal visit to the North Korean Embassy in Beijing to offer his condolences over Kim's death in person, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
"China expects to make joint efforts with the comrades of North Korea to effectively consolidate, construct and develop the traditionally friendly [bilateral] relations," Hu was quoted as saying.
Hu said the Communist Party of China, the Chinese government, and the Chinese people experienced "deep grief over comrade Kim Jong Il's death."
"President Hu and other senior leaders stepped close to the portrait of comrade Kim Jong Il, presented wreaths and silently grieved over the death of Kim Jong Il. Afterwards, they bowed to the portrait three times," Xinhua said.
The Japanese prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, will go ahead with his planned trip to Beijing next week, Japanese officials said on Tuesday.
Noda is expected to ask President Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao to continue to make efforts toward the resumption of the six-party talks, which have been stalled since 2008, Japanese government officials said.
Reported by Luisetta Mudie.