China wagers on long-term stake in North Korea

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May 11, 2010, 8 a.m. | World — by Reuters

China won no clear dividends from North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's latest secretive visit but showed it will wager major economic and diplomatic stakes on shaping its neighbour's shaky future.


BEIJING, May 11 (Reuters) - China won no clear dividends from North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's latest secretive visit but showed it will wager major economic and diplomatic stakes on shaping its neighbour's shaky future. After Beijing ended its official silence about Kim's five-day visit that ended on Friday, Chinese media reported that North Korea was willing "to discuss creati

That was far from a firm personal commitment from Kim to rejoin the moribund six-party disarmament talks that also includes the United States, Russia, South Korea and Japan.

Chinese President Hu Jintao, however, appeared focused on securing a bigger economic role for China in North Korea, and gaining more clarity over Kim's intentions, said analysts.

China's leaders want to "position themselves effectively in the event that there is change in North Korea, to protect their interests and advance their influence", said Bonnie Glaser, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C., who studies Chinese foreign policy.

Kim's frailty from age and illness was visible in news footage of his visit. Worries about what could follow his death or infirmity appear to have magnified China's determination to extend its stake in the North.

"China appears to have been preparing what is more or less a bail-out package with strings attached", said John Park, a researcher at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington D.C. who studies Chinese-North Korean relations.

"Kim's frail health has raised alarm bells (in China)".

But China's courting of North Korea carries economic costs, and has irked the two countries' neighbours, who fear that Beijing's backing could dilute pressure on Kim to return to nuclear disarmament talks.

Officials in Seoul have chided China for courting Kim soon after a South Korean naval ship, the Cheonan, sank from what they have hinted was probably a North Korean torpedo.

China has vastly more trade with South Korea than with the North. But Beijing will put up with diplomatic squalls with Seoul as a down-payment for firmer ties with Pyongyang.

Turmoil in the North could release a surge of refugees into northeast China and even threaten the North's survival as Beijing's strategic buffer against South Korea and its ally, the United States.

Chinese reports said Hu told Kim that their two countries should "strengthen strategic communication" on major domestic and foreign issues -- words that could cover discussion of Kim's succession plans.

"Hu's proposal suggested that China does not want any more surprises such as missile tests, or nuclear tests, or incidents such as the Cheonan", said Wei Zhijiang, an expert on Korea at Zhongshan University in southern China.


On this trip, Kim appeared more serious than before about China's economic enticements, aware that his economy needs Beijing's help more than ever, said Wei.

Kim's visit may be a turning point towards North Korea abandoning South Korea as a source of aid and investment in favour of China, said Wei.

"In the past, it was China that was more active about seeking a bigger economic role in North Korea, but this time North Korea appeared to take more of the initiative," Wei said by telephone from Tokyo, where he is a visiting scholar.

North Korea's ragged economy, with an annual GDP of about $17 billion, has stumbled after a fumbled currency redenomination effort and South Korea's suspension of aid worth $1 billion a year after rising disputes with Pyongyang.

"It's a matter of mathematical subtraction," said Xu Wenji, a professor at Jilin University in northeast China who studies China's economic ties with North Korea.

"If you take away South Korea, take away the United States, take away Japan, take away other Western countries, then all that North Korea has left is China," said Xu.

Both sides avoided any public mention of the sinking of the South Korean warship. Several Chinese analysts said Beijing did not want to become embroiled in that dispute, even if Seoul takes the matter to the United Nations. "I think that China will treat this as a bilateral incident, even if it is found to be a North Korean torpedo," said Wei.
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