North Korean Leader Seen in China

Reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was widely reported today to have begun his first trip to China since 2006 (see GSN, April 30).

Kim is expected to use his visit to petition the Chinese government for more foreign aid for his impoverished country and to try to block any effort by South Korea to win Beijing’s backing for penalizing the North for the March sinking of a naval ship. Pyongyang is widely assumed in the South to be responsible for the incident which killed 46 sailors, the New York Times reported.

The naval disaster has dampened prospects that the stalled six-nation talks aimed at shuttering the North’s nuclear weapons program could be reconvened anytime soon. A visit by Kim to China, though, could suggest the Stalinist regime is preparing to rejoin negotiations.

China is seen to have the power to convince North Korea to take some steps on the nuclear disarmament front. However, its emphasis has been on ensuring that the government in Pyongyang remains stable as it does not want widespread unrest along its border, experts say.

“China’s national interest remains the same,” said International Crisis Group analyst Daniel Pinkston. “It will continue to ask North and South Korea to exercise restraint and refrain from using violence and taking provocative actions that could cause instability.”

Hosting Kim barely more than a month after the sinking of the Cheonan and while an investigation into the incident continues, could strengthen worries that China’s handling of North Korea has hurt chances for political modernization and nuclear disarmament in the country.

“It gives a wrong signal to the North Korean leaders,” Seoul-based expert Baek Seung-joo said. “If China continues to support the North, it will never abandon its belief that it can do whatever it wants with impunity” (Choe Sang-hun, New York Times, May 3).

There was no immediate official confirmation of Kim’s visit, but televised footage appeared to show him at a hotel in the Chinese city of Dalian, the Associated Press reported (Hyung-Jin Kim, Associated Press I/Yahoo!News, May 3).

Seoul academic Yang Moo-jin predicted that Kim during this trip would offer a commitment to return to multilateral nuclear talks but leave the time line for the full negotiations to host-nation China, Agence France-Presse reported.

“In return, Kim will receive economic aid from China,” Yang said.

The talks also include Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States. North Korea pulled out of the talks last spring and subsequently detonated its second nuclear test device (Robert Saiget, Agence France-Presse/Yahoo!News, May 3).

Meanwhile, Israeli President Shimon Peres alleged yesterday that Pyongyang was playing the role of a “duty free shop for long-range missiles and nuclear weapons,” AP reported.

Peres did not offer any specific evidence to support his contention.

“These weapons flow straight to Iran, who arms and strengthens the world’s global terror network, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and other groups in Syria,” the president said (see related GSN story today; Aron Heller, Associated Press II/Yahoo!News, May 2).