China and South Korea have designated 2012 as a year of friendship to mark 20 years of diplomatic relations. The anniversary may provide a pretext for more active diplomacy to meet a growing list of potential disputes in the relationship, including China's handling of North Korean refugees, illegal fishing in Korean territorial waters, territorial claims, and mutual suspicions regarding approaches toward North Korea. All of this is occurring in a period of political transition in both countries, as South Korea prepares for December elections while China works out a complex leadership transition later this year. Presidents Hu Jintao and Lee Myung-bak have held two summits this year, in Beijing in January and in Seoul on March 26 on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit. On his state visit to China from Jan. 9-11, Lee also met Premier Wen Jiabao and top legislator Wu Bangguo. Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi met President Lee and ROK counterpart Kim Sung-hwan on March 2 during his visit to Seoul for annual inter-ministerial consultations. The two foreign ministers also met in Ningbo, China, on April 8 for the sixth China-ROK-Japan Foreign Ministers Meeting. Sino-South Korean diplomatic exchanges have sharpened attention on the prospects for the bilateral partnership in the aftermath of Kim Jong Il's death.
Meanwhile, high-level contacts between China and North Korea have stalled since December. Beijing made renewed calls for restraint on the Korean Peninsula following North Korea's failed launch of an "earth observation satellite" on April 13 and a UN Security Council (UNSC) President's Statement on April 16 strongly condemning the launch. The incident has dampened China's hopes for regional engagement that were raised by a series of bilateral consultations in Beijing among US, PRC, and DPRK special envoys in February. Marking the 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung, the launch was made two days after Kim Jong Un's appointment as First Secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) on April 11.