Jonathan Eyal, Europe Correspondent

New security game in Korean peninsula

Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit South Korea this week - before he has visited its "communist ally" North Korea. It's no coincidence, but the playing out of Seoul's new approach towards Pyongyang

Chinese President Xi Jinping's arrival in South Korea this week is officially described as normal diplomacy, a return courtesy for South Korean President Park Geun Hye's own visit to Beijing last year.

But it is nothing of the kind.

When he steps out of his plane in Seoul, Mr Xi will become the first national leader in the history of the People's Republic of China to visit South Korea before visiting communist North Korea, China's supposed "historic" ally.

In reality, the Chinese President's trip is part of an intricate new diplomatic game now unfolding on the Korean peninsula. It is a game which looks set to succeed in its original objective of deepening North Korea's isolation.

But it is not one which can produce stability: North Korea's decision to launch short-range rockets last week was a timely reminder of just how combustible the situation in North Asia remains.

The initiator of this new diplomacy is the South Korean President. A great deal of what Ms Park has to say about North Korea remains unremarkable. Her recent speech in the German city of Dresden, grandly dubbed by South Korean officials as the "Dresden Initiative" is, in practice, a rather humdrum collection of promises to help North Korea's economy in return for the communist country abandoning its nuclear weapons quest, the sort of offer many of Ms Park's predecessors also dangled before Pyongyang, and always without any success.

Where Ms Park has been truly innovative is in her approach to China. Previous South Korean leaders have tended to view China as part of the problem in dealing with North Korea: China is the mainstay of the North Korean regime, in both economic and political terms. But Ms Park turned this perception upside down, by deciding to treat China as part of the solution to the Korean peninsula.

Seoul's new approach

ONE strand of this new strategy entails simply avoiding any public criticism of China, even when China's behaviour grates on Korean nerves. But the biggest bait is Ms Park's readiness to join hands with China in opposing what the two nations regard as Japan's reluctance to come to terms with the country's historic responsibility for atrocities committed during World War II. Earlier this year, South Korea collaborated with China in opening a memorial to a Korean nationalist who assassinated a Japanese colonial governor more than a century ago; the two nations are also examining the possibility of sharing commemorations next year to mark the 70th anniversary of Japan's defeat in World War II.

To be sure, both Beijing and Seoul know that their cooperation in denouncing Japan is, ultimately, a publicity gambit. Still, it is a useful device from which both derive real strategic benefits.

China is eager to prove that its current anti-Japanese stance is not a single-handed Beijing obsession, but is shared by other Asian nations. The Chinese may also be hoping that the joint promotion of historic grievances may lend itself at a future date to closer cooperation between Beijing and Seoul on the two nations' existing territorial disputes against Japan.

And South Korea, in turn, gets China's help not only in putting some real pressure on North Korea, but also in delineating clear limits on what North Korea is allowed to do: "The two of us," said a beaming Ms Park at the end of her summit with Mr Xi last year, "share a common understanding that Pyongyang's possession of nuclear weapons is unacceptable under any circumstances".

Underpinning this new South Korean approach is a more fundamental shift in the balance of power in the region. As the world's 10th-biggest economy, South Korea is no longer confining itself to just running its own North Korea policy; it is also stamping its mark on the policies of other countries towards Pyongyang. The days when other countries ran one policy towards North Korea and another towards the South with no objections from Seoul are now gone, for good. In public, the North Koreans have responded to Ms Park in their time-honoured manner, by resorting to verbal abuse. A recent North Korean media commentary called the South Korean President a "capricious whore who asks her fancy man to do harm to another person while providing sex for him"; perhaps such obscenities make some sense in the Korean language.

Pyongyang not budging

BUT in talks with North Korean officials last week, I have seen clear indications that Pyongyang is desperately trying to take counter-measures against this tightening diplomatic pincer movement.

Officials admitted that North Korea has restarted hush-hush negotiations with Japan over the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by the North Koreans during the 1970s; the message seems to be that, if South Korea can play the "Japan card", so can the North.

Officials were also eager to tell me that Russia has expressed a readiness to trade again with North Korea. The badly lit, mausoleum-like lobby of the Koryo Hotel in Pyongyang, where most foreign visitors to North Korea stay, was full last week with Russian military officers of various kinds, some supposedly there to play in an army band, others with more complicated business objectives in mind.

Outwardly, Pyongyang itself looks peaceful and even prosperous, with its broad, tree-lined avenues and carefully landscaped parks. Gigantic buildings go up all the time; the latest addition is a huge museum to the Korean War of the early 1950s, topped by a vast statue of Kim Il Sung, the country's founder, deliberately made to look as similar as possible to current ruler Kim Jong Un, his grandson.

But all of this is just a showcase, for a closer look reveals the tell-tale signs of grinding, cruel poverty. Kneeling women cut the grass in public gardens with scissors or tackle it with their bare hands, since their labour is cheaper than any utensils. Scrawny conscript soldiers who, due to malnutrition, look not one day older than 14 carry bricks with their bare hands at various construction sites.

Few dare to even look at the few passing foreigners, since one wrong furtive glance could land both them and their families in labour camps.

Almost anything worth eating is available only on payment of hard currency; a few cans of soft drinks - a lot of which, incidentally, are imported from Singapore - are equivalent to the monthly salary of a worker. And that is in Pyongyang, the capital in which only those approved by the regime can live, and special permits are required for visits.

Although it is clearly worried about its diplomatic isolation, the North Korean government gives no indication that it is contemplating change. I was urged to disabuse myself of the idea of economic reform: "No reform is required; we just need to fix some small problem" is how one official put it.

The calculation in Pyongyang is that, although the country's room for manoeuvre may be circumscribed, this is unlikely to last long and will not matter much.

Up to a point, the North Koreans are right. China may be displeased with the current Pyongyang leadership but still finds North Korea useful; indeed, the country's continued existence is what gives Beijing added leverage over South Korea, as well as Japan and the United States.

Furthermore, although nobody wants to see a nuclear North Korea, nobody knows how to stop the country's nuclearisation. North Korean experts brazenly told me that "soon enough", their country's missiles may be able to hit at targets inside the continental United States and, while it's impossible to know whether they actually believe this nonsense, they clearly do believe that, as long as they have some nuclear capacity, the world will leave them alone. So, in many respects, the growing diplomatic marginalisation of North Korea changes nothing.

Nevertheless, it is a trend worth watching. For although the North Korean regime has defied all predictions of its demise, having survived both the end of the Soviet Union and China's market economy transformation, past performance is not necessarily a guide to the future.

North Korea's regime remains brittle, and it only needs to make one mistake to bring the whole edifice crashing down; that's what happened with other communist regimes which also looked impermeable to change.

Ms Park has no way of knowing if or when this may happen. But when she welcomes Mr Xi in Seoul later this week, she will help lay the foundation to a new South Korean-Chinese dialogue which will become critically important the moment North Korea starts collapsing.

In that respect, Ms Park is following in the footsteps of Germany during the Cold War, when German leaders cultivated special relations with the Soviet Union just in case that would come in handy in the process of German unification. That gamble paid off: German unification was accomplished without bloodshed.

Not many believe that the Korean peninsula can ever be reunified so neatly.

Still, President Park is surely justified to make sure that, if the opportunity occurs, Seoul and Beijing will at least be on terms friendly enough to manage it.