SEOUL - Even when North Korea's
founder Kim Il-sung was alive, he never visited
China three times within a period of one year -
something his son has achieved with his current
trip, making everyone wonder what made Kim Jong-il
make such a rare move.
As with previous
trips, Chinese state media have kept mum about
details of the visit, leaving it to other sources
to speculate about a trip that has already lasted
Media in South Korea, the prime
outpost to observe North Korea, appear to have a
fairly good idea of what it is all about - the
economy, with South Korea's TV broadcaster YTN on
Thursday, for instance, concluding that North
Korea wants to expand
economic cooperation with
The two countries are expected to
hold a groundbreaking ceremony on Saturday for the
development of a river island - Hwanggumpyong
Island - located on their border. This will be
followed by another groundbreaking ceremony on
Monday to build roads connecting the Chinese city
of Hunchun with the North Korean port city Rajin.
Analysts view the two projects as central
economic cooperation projects that will ramp up
the border region's economy. China's northeastern
region is landlocked and using the North Korean
port will expedite the export of good produced by
Sino-North Korean joint projects.
Korean experts also view economic cooperation as
one of the major objects of Kim's visit,
especially as the United States and South Korea,
the usual two prime economic aid-providers to
North Korea, have been withholding largesse in the
aftermath of two fatal incidents last year: the
sinking of the corvette Cheonan and the
shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. Seoul demands North
Korea's apology as a precondition to resuming
economic aid. Washington, Seoul's staunch ally, so
far has faithfully backed this insistence.
"Now, who else could North Korea turn to,
other than China?" asked Shin Ki-nam, a former
head of the National Assembly's Intelligence
Committee in South Korea.
South Korea's former ambassador to China, agreed,
characterizing Kim's trip as "North Korea's [food]
begging diplomacy." Track records show that
whenever Kim visits China, he seeks assistance
from the Middle Kingdom, including food, heavy oil
But Cai Jian, a professor of
Korean studies at Shanghai's Fudan University,
differs in that he sees the primary aim of Kim's
visit as Pyongyang's effort to seek China's
diplomatic and political support, while the
economic aspect is auxiliary.
year, North Korea has experienced great diplomatic
isolation and pressure," he said. With Seoul and
Washington's hardline stance, the situation has
not changed. Even North Korea's massive "charm
offensive" earlier this year didn't placate
Seoul's and Washington's attitude. "Pyongyang is
turning to Beijing to help broker its diplomatic
isolation," Cai said.
In a meeting with
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak this week in
Japan, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told Lee that
China invited North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to
the country to "help Pyongyang learn about Chinese
Wen's revelation is
seen as unusual because the Chinese leadership in
the past has not acknowledged the North Korean
leader's visit until he had returned home.
Another interesting element is that three
days after Wen met Lee, Chinese President Hu
Jintao met with Kim. China's leaders reaching out
to both Koreas, almost at the same time, is seen
as China taking a more proactive approach toward
the Korean Peninsula, amid the Middle Kingdom's
growing confidence of its global status. The move
has also stirred a fresh debate on what China
wants from North Korea, in addition to what North
Korea wants from China.
largest-selling and conservative newspaper, Chosun
Ilbo, pointed out in an editorial titled "The Ins
and Outs of China's Diplomacy in Reaching out to
Both Koreas" the "coincidence" that last May, Hu
met with Lee in Shanghai and three days later he
also met with Kim in Beijing. "We need to read
China's intentions correctly ... China exercises
absolute influence over North Korea," it said,
expressing caution against China's "balancing
diplomacy to both Koreas".
South Korea, a
former vassal state of the Middle Kingdom, is wary
about China's growing overture toward the Korean
Peninsula. Even former South Korean president Roh
Moo-hyun once painstakingly explained to former US
president George W Bush how many times Korea had
been invaded by China, in an effort to relieve
Washington's concern that Roh was a "pro-China"
Jin Canrong, a security expert at
Renmin University in Beijing, believes there is
some outside misunderstanding about what China is
doing with North Korea, including the "timing" of
Kim's visit to China. "The schedule of Kim's trip
to China is always set by the North Korean side.
When the Dear Leader decides to come to China,
China has no other choice. China follows their
Han Suk-hee, a Yonsei University
expert on China-North Korea relations in Seoul,
sees China as playing a positive role by hosting
Kim. "Whenever Kim Jong-il visited China, it was
an opportunity for the isolated North Korea to get
in touch with the outside world. China also showed
off the success of its economic reforms," he said.
One aspect of Kim's trip that made many
observers scratch their heads was his visit to the
southern city of Yangzhou in Jiangsu province.
Skipping his previous normal routine when he stays
one night in each city he visits, he traveled
3,000 kilometers for three days and two nights in
his special armored train to visit the almost
obscure small city, which is not part of China's
showcase cities for impressive economic
The conspicuous diversion
from routine remains the biggest puzzle in Kim's
visit and has drawn a lot of speculation. Some see
it as a display of Kim's physical prowess - he has
survived a stroke - amid outside attention of the
power transition to his son, Kim Jong-eun, to make
it clear he still calls the shots. Others point
out the displeasure in China regarding North
Korea's family power transition, which goes
against socialist teachings.
went all the way down there, as if he was
protesting something," noted Yoo Ho-yeol, a North
Korea expert at Korea University in Seoul.
Yangzhou is the hometown of Jiang Zemin,
Hu Jintao's predecessor. South Korean media
suspect Kim met with Jiang, who still remains as a
powerful figure and pulls strings behind the
"Kim Jong-il wants to get wider
support from China. He definitely needs support
from incumbent leaders. But perhaps he considered
that's not enough. He needs to get the former
leader's support," said Jin at Renmin University,
adding Kim's meeting with Jiang was likely to
serve multiple purposes, including in the
economic, power-transition and security areas.
Experts point out that these issues are
interrelated because a stable economy is needed to
pave the way for the power transition to Jong-eun,
who is still in his 20s and inexperienced. And
Kim's handing over power to his son in an
economically doable environment would better
guarantee the stability of the Kim family dynasty.
(firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Seoul-born
columnist and journalist; he has degrees from the
US and China.
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