Updated: 07/03/2014 03:01 | By Agence France-Presse

Xi's visit to Seoul 'important milestone,' says US

A visit to South Korea this week by Chinese President Xi Jinping marks "an important milestone" in warming ties and is in stark contrast with Beijing's "chilly" relations with Pyongyang, a US diplomat said Wednesday.

Xi's visit to Seoul 'important milestone,' says US

Chinese President Xi Jinping waits for leaders to arrive before the opening ceremony at the Expo Center at the fourth Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) summit in Shanghai on May 21, 2014 - by Aly Song

Xi is due to visit Seoul on Thursday for talks with his South Korean counterpart Park Geun-Hye on a closely watched state visit which will include discussions on North Korea's nuclear program.

Beijing however, despite being the North's traditional ally, has not had a summit with Pyongyang since the December 2011 death of its then-leader Kim Jong-Il.

"Clearly the net effect of a visit by the Chinese president to the Republic of Korea, that showcases the dramatic warming of relations and the broadening of practical cooperation, stands in pretty stark contrast to the chilly relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang," Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel told AFP in an interview.

Beijing and Washington are seeking "to persuade North Korea that its only viable option is to take steps to come into compliance with its international obligations," Russel said.

Six-party talks with Pyongyang on reining in its nuclear program have been stalled since 2009, and the North has carried out a series of rocket launches denounced by the United States as provocative.

On Wednesday North Korea fired two short-range rockets off its east coast, marking the third such test by the North in the past week -- all three involving firing into the Sea of Japan (East Sea).

North Korea is set to be the focus of some "in-depth discussions" when top Chinese and US leaders meet in Beijing next week for annual strategic and economic talks.

Both China and the United States want to achieve de-nuclearization "through negotiations and we have been refining an approach that would ensure that North Korea comes to the table with convincing evidence that it's prepared to truly negotiate."

"No one wants to go back to the merry-go-round of talks for talks' sake," Russel said.

Washington has long been pushing Beijing to use its sway with Pyongyang to bring it back to the negotiating table, and has increased sanctions against the isolated communist-run state.

"The symbolism of a visit by a Chinese leader to Seoul against the backdrop of tensions between North Korea and its neighbors... is pretty striking," Russel said.

"The Chinese have increasingly moved in the direction that denuclearization is more than just a slogan, it is an objective that needs to be implemented, and implemented on a credible and rapid timeline."

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