No fraying seen in North-China ties

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No fraying seen in North-China ties

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s visit to China last week served as proof of the strength of Sino-North ties.

Those bonds must be steely. Kim won economic aid from the Chinese, as well as support for the transfer of power to his son. And the subject of the Cheonan was conspicuous only in its absence.

The outcome was disappointing for South Korea, where hopes were high that, should a North Korean torpedo be determined to be responsible the sinking of the warship on March 26, China would support its efforts to bring the matter before the United Nations Security Council.

But in the weeks since the disaster, China has been decidedly noncommittal. And during Kim’s stay in Beijing the Chinese foreign ministry went even further, saying that the visit and the Cheonan probe are entirely different matters.

The visit appears to have been a diplomatic coup for the North Korean leader, sweetened for China by his reaffirmed pledge to denuclearization. In Kim’s meeting with Hu Jintao, the Chinese president himself made five proposals to reinforce bilateral ties. On one point, the Chinese leader suggested the two countries should exchange views on “major domestic and diplomatic issues [and] international and regional situation.” On another point, Hu said China and North Korea should “strengthen coordination in international and regional affairs to better serve regional peace and stability.”

At the same time, the leaders agreed to maintain high-level contacts and to increase personnel exchanges in culture, sports and education.

Hu’s suggestions, and the promise of economic aid, leave North Korea on firmer footing should it have to face down increased sanctions.

“These proposals seem to be almost a pre-emptive move on China’s part to prevent actions [by South Korea or the United States] in case North Korea is held accountable for the Cheonan sinking,” a diplomatic source said. “On the surface, China would argue that it is against anything that would threaten the regional peace and stability.

“But in reality, China is more about its relations with North Korea. And it was Hu, not Kim, who came up with these proposals.”

That relation between China and North Korea is often referred to as a “special one,” forged by the blood their armed forces shed fighting together during the Korean War. And there’s no doubt that by offering the North economic aid and political backing, China receives in return a more stable neighbor.

It’s an important consideration for China. Any contingency in North Korea, especially one caused by a sudden death of Kim Jong-il and a resulting power vacuum, would generate major headaches for China. Should the North’s regime collapse, the North would lose control of its nuclear arsenal, economic turmoil would spill out of the country, and hundreds of thousands of North Koreans would likely come flooding into China.

There is also the possibility of some economic benefit to China. According to Xinhua, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao promised Kim that “China will, as always, support [North Korea] for developing economy and improving people’s livelihood and is willing to introduce to [North Korea] the experience of China’s reform and opening-up and construction.” And Wen noted the “big potential” for trade cooperation between the two countries, and urged Kim to work to push major cooperative projects, build infrastructure in border areas and seek new cooperative opportunities that would be mutually beneficial.

Kim’s trip included stopovers in two industrial towns, Dalian and Tianjin, where he toured economic zones and met with local business leaders. His delegation included key economy-related officials, such as Jang Song-thaek, Kim’s brother-in-law, who oversees foreign investment as a member of the powerful National Defense Commission, and Kim Yang-gon, a director of the Unification Front Department at the Workers’ Party, who doubles as the chief of the Korea Taepung International Investment Group, which provides funds for a new state bank in North Korea.

North Korean state media on Friday mentioned only Kim’s trips to Dalian and Tianjin, and didn’t report on the summit until Saturday afternoon. Analysts here said that showed how much North Korea wanted to make economy the focus of Kim’s visit.

North Korea has been under financial and arms trade embargoes since its nuclear test last May and economic problems were further exacerbated by the botched currency reform late last year, which reportedly resulted in public riots and the execution of bureaucrats in charge of economic policy.

Observes said the North’s media deliberately highlighted the business side of the trip to assuage the angry public and to ostensibly show their Dear Leader was working to get help from China, the North’s biggest ally and benefactor.

But Kim also appears to have received Chinese approval for the transfer of power to his third son, Jong-un. According to Xinhua, Kim said the China-North Korea friendship “has stood the test of time and will not change due to the change of time and alteration of generations.”

Since Kim reportedly suffered a stroke in August 2008, Kim Jong-un has been tabbed as the likely successor to the throne. The junior Kim is reportedly working in a senior policy-making capacity at the ruling Workers’ Party as part of the grooming process. There have been other signs that the third-generation Kim is the heir apparent.

Kim Jong-un, however, was not seen in the North Korean delegation during the trip.

“Kim Jong-il’s words do seem to be calling for Chinese support for the family succession,” one North Korean source said. “They also seem to be asking China to continue to be there for North Korea in any contingencies [caused by the change of leadership].”


By Yoo Jee-ho, Chang Se-jeong [jeeho@joongang.co.kr]

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