BEIJING (Reuters) - China's President Hu Jintao on Friday met the powerful uncle of North Korea's young leader Kim Jong-un, in a clear show of support for the impoverished ally as it takes tentative steps to rebuild its shattered economy.
The uncle, Jang song-thaek, is seen as a driving force for reforms which the isolated and destitute North is believed to be trying and for which it desperately needs Chinese backing.
"For many years, Comrade Jang Song-thaek has done a great deal of work to develop neighborly friendship between China and North Korea," Hu said at their meeting, according to Chinese radio.
Hu also offered condolences for floods that recently hit the North, which routinely struggles to feed its 24 million people.
"I'm confident that under the leadership of the Korean Workers' Party with Kim Jong-un as its First Secretary, the North Korean people will be able to overcome this flood disaster and build a beautiful homeland."
Jang's trip to China this week has been seen as the latest sign that Kim is seriously exploring ways to revive his reclusive country's economy, which has been in decline for years.
Jang attended meetings to discuss joint economic projects in Rason on the North's east coast, and in Hwanggumphyong, an area on the border between the two countries.
Chinese state news agency Xinhua quoted Hu as saying that he "hopes the two sides can make full use of their respective advantages ... (and) push forward in the cooperation of the two key economic zone projects."
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who also met with Jang, said the Chinese government "will firmly support North Korea's economic development and improvement of people's livelihoods".
Companies from China and North Korea opened on Friday a new tourist route from Yanji, a city in China's northeast Jilin province that borders the North, to Rason to boost economic and tourism exchanges between the two countries, Xinhua said in a separate report.
"The new international route will turn a new page in trade and tourism cooperation between the two countries," Xinhua cited Wang Yanbo, deputy director of the Yanji Tourism Administration, as saying.
North Korea relies on China to support its economy, which has been dragged down by decades of mismanagement and international sanctions over its weapons programs.
Kim's father, who died last December, flirted with reform but never really let it take root, wary of anything that might undermine his family's iron grip over the state.
But the new leader has presented a different image to his father and is believed to want economic and agricultural reform.
North Korea has received little more than $300 million in non-financial direct investment from about 100 Chinese companies mainly in the food, medicine, electronics, mining, light industry, chemicals and textile sectors.
(Reporting by Chris Buckley, Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee, Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Ed Lane)