Always on the lookout for new ways to cut his nose off to spite his face, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il stayed true to form with his just-completed visit to China.
There was initially confusion over whether the trip, which began last week, involved Kim’s son and heir apparent, Kim Jong-un. However the early reports suggesting that the younger Kim was in attendance appear to have been misplaced. Indeed, according to South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo, Kim Jong-un has disappeared from public view completely the past few days (analysts speculate that he’s hunkering down for some practice at running the country while his father is overseas).
China is generally seen as North Korea’s only ally, and the only country that has any real influence over it, although that is admittedly a relative thing. But this doesn’t appear to have stopped Kim Jong-il dishing out a diplomatic slight to his hosts by turning up to a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao with only three officials in attendance, compared with nine on the Chinese side.
Again from Chosun Ilbo: ‘A South Korean intelligence officer said, “It is natural for both sides to have a similar number of people attending the summit in diplomatic protocols. It seems Kim Jong-il was expressing dissatisfaction over less than satisfactory results of talks with Premier Wen Jiabao about economic projects.”’
It’s unusual for Kim to travel overseas at all, but he has been to China three times in the past year. The trips are almost certainly tied to the succession issue, and Kim will be keen to try to sew up economic and political support for his son from Beijing.
With ties with South Korea having gone sour since Seoul halted unconditional food shipments to North Korea in early 2008—and with the countries having come uncomfortably close to outright conflict last year—Pyongyang is even more dependent on China to help feed the estimated six million North Koreans needing emergency assistance.
Regular Diplomat contributor Sebastian Strangio has an excellent new piece on the ongoing plight of those who manage to flee North Korea in search of a better life, including those who cross over into China. It’s fears that this trickle could become a flood if the North Korean regime collapses that largely motivates China’s public softly-softly approach with North Korea.
China is said, though, not to be particularly happy about the prospect of an inexperienced Kim Jong-un, aged just 27 or 28, taking over the nuclear-armed Hermit Kingdom. Chinese officials will undoubtedly therefore be hoping that economic initiatives like the development projects reportedly planned along the Chinese border, facilitated by the paving of a road between Hunchun and the North Korean port of Rajin, will help steady the ship.
BusinessWeek also reported this week on another project that ‘would see China develop North Korea's Hwanggumpyong island along their border…The projects would allow North Korea to profit as a broker for Chinese exports, but don't signify any further liberalization of the North's centrally planned economy, said Ian Davies, an Australian consultant who worked on a UN project to develop the area during the 1990s.’
Economics aside, Kim is also said during this week’s trip to have offered to return to the negotiating table at the Six-Party talks aimed at its nuclear programme. South Korea, however, is said to be unimpressed by the offer.
This is hardly surprising given North Korea’s usual ‘make a deal, break a deal’ antics. Still, we can only hope that there’s nothing in reports discussed by our own J. Berkshire Miller a couple of weeks back, when he noted talk of North Korea preparing for another nuclear test.