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North Korea Plays Phone Tag

Geoffrey Cain
Tuesday, 18 Jun 2013 | 1:29 AM ET
Sam Gellman | Flickr | Getty Images

You may find something odd about China hosting talks with North Korea on Wednesday.

The invitation comes on the heels of an erratic week during which North Korea proposed negotiations and then snubbed South Korea.

This week, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui will meet North Korea's First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan in Beijing.

A Chinese spokeswoman insisted the government is trying to stay in "close communication" with its neighbor to "promote each side to quickly restart dialogue and consultation."

(Read More: North Korea Sends Top Kim Jung-Un Aide to Beijing)

But why now?

Some analysts in Seoul say the reason could be straightforward: that Beijing has an interest in encouraging Pyongyang to gradually open up because it will bear the brunt of a volatile nuclear regime on its border.

China is not an ardent political ally of North Korea. But the two countries are economically tethered through trade and a number of highways and high-speed railways being built near their mutual border.

(Read More: North Korea Fires Short-Range Missiles for Second Day)

Yet Beijing harbors misgivings over North Korea's decision-making. In February, it advised Pyongyang not to carry out its third nuclear test, Reuters reported.

More From The Global Post:

North Korea Proposes Talks with United States
North and South Korea Could Hold Talks as Soon as Sunday
N. Korea Requests Talks on Closed Kaesong Complex

The isolated state insisted on detonating a nuclear device. The blast prompted the United Nations, with the backing of China, to pass another round of sanctions targeting its state financial bank.

China has some incentive to cooperate with the United States.

In April, Secretary of State John Kerry attempted a bargain with Chinese leaders. He promised that Washington would draw down parts of its anti-ballistic missile system in Asia, which Beijing has protested in the past.

But Washington would only follow through if China "put some teeth" into convincing Pyongyang to denuclearize, Kerry said.

For two months, Pyongyang went on a tirade of war threats thanks in part to the UN sanctions.

(Read More: North Korea Wants High-Level Talks With US)

The brouhaha died in April, and now North Korea claims it wants to go back to the negotiating table.

On Sunday, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the state mouthpiece, announced that Pyongyang was seeking talks with Washington.

Washington snickered. The country will be judged "by its actions and not its words," a US State Department spokeswoman said.

The Key to Peace Between the Two Koreas
Matthias Maass, Assistant Professor of International Relations at Yonsei University thinks China holds the key to a sustainable peace between North and South Korea.

Another possible reason for the brush-off: the announcement came a week after Pyongyang agreed similar talks with South Korea and then backed out.

North Korean leaders insisted their counterparts in Seoul were putting forward a delegate with too low a rank to meet with their vice minister.

Today, the Chosun Ilbo, a South Korean newspaper, cited a military source claiming that North Korea may have moved attack boats toward a forward base at the Northern Limit Line (NLL). The allegation has not been publicly confirmed by other government bodies.

The NLL is a disputed boundary in the West Sea, off the coast of North and South Korea.

(Read More: North Korea Says South's 'Sinister' Moves Caused Talks Collapse)

It's been a regular zone of confrontation when North Korea doesn't extract aid and concessions from its neighbor, experts say.

In 2010, Seoul accused the North of sinking a naval corvette and then bombarding an island with artillery shells. The cataclysms together left 50 South Koreans dead.

If the newspaper is correct that patrol boats are near the area, North Korea could be once again mixing its diplomatic gestures with a bit of stick wagging.

The regime, many analysts say, is ultimately focused on survival. It will do what it can to get much-needed funds from the world.

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