SPEAKING FREELY North Korea tied to China
By Bruno de Paiva
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North Korean Prime Minister Choe Yong-rim recently spent a week in China on an
official visit on behalf of the notoriously isolated and totalitarian nation.
The 80-year-old prime minister visited the Chinese capital Beijing, Shanghai
and Jiangsu province, in China’s east, where he met with top Chinese
bureaucrats including Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao.
The visit followed recent bilateral talks between North Korea and Russia,
Cambodia and Myanmar for the purpose of increasing
trade in food and energy.
Those official meetings have led to the likelihood that the talks in China by
Choe also focused on North Korea's economy, whose survival is largely reliant
While North Korea has recently attempted to establish greater trade relations
elsewhere, the visit to China by Choe shows that the cards it has played in
recent years has given it no real option but to keep China as its main trading
Although many high-level North Korean visits to China are often kept secret,
there is strong evidence to suggest that North Korean President Kim Jong-Il
visited China in May and August 2010, possibly accompanied by his son and heir
apparent, Kim Jong-eun. 
Kim Jong-Il also visited China in May this year, which marked his third visit
to that country in slightly over a year. The purpose of that visit was also
believed to have been for talks on economic cooperation.
This makes the visit by Choe the fourth by a high-ranking North Korean
government official in just over 16 months.
The frequency of such visits to China arouses the possibility that the North
Korean economy is close to a total collapse, leading to it looking for yet
another bailout from its only major ally in the guise of stronger economic
Should this be the case, it would further deepen North Korea’s already high
dependence on China to maintain its economy and stop it from total failure.
According to the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency, 83% of North Korea’s
US$4.2 billion of international commerce in 2010 was accounted for by China.
This was up from 53% that China accounted for in 2005. 
Those statistics are significant in that it shows that China has become
imperative to the survival of North Korea, potentially more so than at any ever
time since the fall of the Soviet Union.
For China, it is in its national interest to have stability on it immediate
frontiers while it grows into a global power. This means it does not desire a
border country such as North Korea, which doubles as a geostrategic asset on
the Korean Peninsula for China, to collapse in the short and medium-term
Because of this, North Korea, while not wanting to wholly rely on China for its
survival, can look to China to maintain its economy, especially when sanctions
on it remain in place.
This is likely to have been the primary driving force behind Choe’s visit to
China. While President Hu and Premier Wen vowed to strengthen Chinese-North
Korean economic ties during Kim Jong-Il’s visit in May, Choe’s visit was a sign
of North Korea’s desire to consolidate on those promises.
Jiangsu province, one of the three places visited by the North Korean prime
minister, is also known for its food production, a potential sign that North
Korea may be after greater food aid from China as well as general economic
While North Korea may wish to not be as reliant on China as it presently is,
the visit by Choe shows that its domestic policies and global isolation have
left it with little choice but to look to China to once again ensure it stays
Bruno de Paiva is an Australian analyst on issues relating to North
(Copyright 2011 Bruno de Paiva.)
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