By Ju-min Park and Sui-Lee Wee
BEIJING (Reuters) - China's president welcomed his South Korean counterpart on Thursday as an "old friend of China" and agreed to make a push for new talks with North Korea on Thursday as two of Asia's newest leaders met for the first time.
Park Geun-hye, one of Asia's few women leaders, took office in Seoul in February amid war threats by North Korea, while China's Xi Jinping was appointed in November and has sought to rein in the North's nuclear weapons program, backing tougher economic sanctions against Beijing's traditional ally.
"The two leaders shared a common view on denuclearizing North Korea, maintaining peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and resolving issues through dialogue and negotiations," Park's office said in a statement after they met.
China backed North Korea in the 1950-53 Korean War with late leader Mao Zedong's eldest son dying in the conflict with the South. The 60th anniversary of the end of the war is July 27.
Beijing is the main economic and diplomatic lifeline for the impoverished and isolated state, whose three nuclear weapons tests since 2006 have threatened Asia's security.
China has boosted sanctions on its ally, which this year conducted a nuclear test in defiance of international criticism. It has also closed access for North Korean banks in China.
Xi was appointed Communist Party chairman, China's most powerful position, last November and named president in March.
In April, he told an international forum in southern China that no country "should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gain".
While Xi did not name North Korea, his comment came amid the highest tension on the peninsula in years, with daily threats from Pyongyang to attack South Korea and the United States.
Xinhua, China's state news agency, appeared to criticize Pyongyang ahead of the visit, saying that "hard-earned trust among concerned parties has been evaporating following unfortunate incidents one after another" since 2009.
In 2009, the North walked out of denuclearization talks brokered by China, carried out its second nuclear test and in 2010 was accused of sinking a South Korean naval vessel and shelling a South Korean island.
ASIAN ECONOMIC POWERHOUSES
China, Asia's largest economy, consumes 15 percent of South Korean exports in annual trade worth $215 billion. North Korea's puny economy trades just $6 billion with China.
Park, 61, was accompanied by a hefty economic delegation from South Korea's huge industrial conglomerates, including the world's largest electronics company, Samsung Electronics Co Ltd, and Hyundai Motor Co. .
The two countries' central banks extended a currency swap for 64 trillion Korean won ($55.44 billion) or 360 billion yuan, as part of a defense against financial market instability.
Unlike a military delegation sent by North Korea last month that featured aged generals bedecked with medals, Park appeared to get an enthusiastic welcome from her hosts.
"Park Geun-hye visits China" was the most searched financial and economic topic on Weibo, China's version of Twitter.
In response to an interview with Park by state broadcaster CCTV, one microblogger, Christumn, said: "I am already her fan".
By contrast, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is derided on some Chinese social media sites as "Fatty Kim".
Stylish and mild mannered, Park arrived with self-taught Mandarin skills, and received a warm welcome from state media for a trip she described as "a journey to deepen the mind and trust" between the two countries.
"The visit, which comes months after both countries saw leadership change, is expected to open a new chapter in bilateral relations," Xinhua said.
Park is to deliver an address at Tsinghua University, Xi's alma mater, on Saturday and visit the ancient capital of Xi'an, the site of major South Korean investment, including a $7 billion chip complex by Samsung Electronics.
Park, whose mother was killed by a North Korean-backed assassin, got a guarded welcome from ethnic Koreans in China.
"I feel thankful for South Korea. Its economy has grown to become one of Asia's four dragons and expanded in China... But on the other hand we want North Korea to live well," said Li Jung-ae, 49, who has a PhD in finance from Tsinghua University. ($ = 1154.5000 Korean won)
(Additional reporting by Jack Kim in SEOUL, Terril Jones and Fiona Li in BEIJING; Writing by David Chance; Editing by Ron Popeski)