China seen nudging North Korea's Kim on economic reform

Reuters News
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Posted: May 26, 2011 4:49 AM
China seen nudging North Korea's Kim on economic reform

By Chris Buckley

BEIJING (Reuters) - North Korea's secretive leader Kim Jong-il finished his latest visit to the Chinese capital on Thursday, embarking on the next and possibly last leg of a train journey that Beijing has used as a rolling tutorial in the virtues of economic reform.

Kim's armored train rolled out of Beijing in the afternoon, accompanied by the heavy security that has been his calling card in a visit through northeast China to the prosperous eastern province of Jiangsu and then to Beijing, most probably for a summit with Chinese leaders.

It was Kim's third trip to Asia's biggest economy in just over a year, and the journey featured stopovers that may offer lessons for his own tattered and top-down controlled economy.

Kim may take home some new ideas for his drive to make North Korea richer, but experts are not expecting a surge of reform. His many past visits to China have not brought that.

But Kim's visit to China in August left the "impression that the Chinese were trying to push harder on the North Koreans to move in the direction of undertaking certain kinds of economic reforms," said Scott Snyder, an Washington D.C.-based expert on North Korea at the Asia Foundation.

"The Chinese had led the horse to the water many times, and now they were going to make the horse drink," said Snyder.

Beijing has used Kim's visits to urge him to return to negotiations aimed at ending his nuclear weapons program. North Korea alarmed the region with atomic test blasts in 2006 and 2009 that drew U.N. sanctions backed by China.

In the past, Kim has rarely travelled abroad and then only in his personal train. He is believed to be scared of flying.

A BUFFER AND A BURDEN

For China, its much smaller and poorer neighbor is both a buffer and a burden.

Beijing sees North Korea as a strategic barrier against the United States and its regional allies. But that barrier comes with a economic and diplomatic price tag.

As Pyongyang's ties with South Korea and much of the outside world have soured, Kim has leaned more on ally Beijing for support, which has cost China both in economic aid and in strains with South Korea and other nations alarmed by North Korea's nuclear weapons development and military brinkmanship.

"The main factor is that North Korea, especially the leadership, is hungry for cash and China is the only viable source of cash," said Snyder.

Kim's trip began on Friday and has included visits to factories, a solar panel plan and a supermarket where he admired the durian, a pungent Southeast Asian fruit, according to South Korean and Japanese news reports.

Before going back to Pyongyang, Kim may also visit development zones on the river border between China and North Korea. South Korea said it would be happy if Kim left China more willing to pursue economic liberalization at home.

"It expects such interaction to speed up opening of North Korea's economy, improving the lives of North Koreans," Cho Byung-jae, a spokesman for the South Korean Foreign Ministry told reporters in Seoul on Thursday, speaking of Kim's trip.

The South's President Lee Myung-bak said Kim "should visit China as often as possible. Then he will see and learn many things, and will probably decide to do the same thing," the Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported.

North Korea has been lobbying the world for food aid and analysts say Kim also wants to shore up China's support for his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, to eventually take over the dynasty that has ruled the North since its founding.

Neither China nor North Korea has openly confirmed Kim's visit. Both sides have publicly announced his past trips only after he returned home, and this one is likely to be the same.

But Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on the weekend that Kim was in China to study "economic development."

In 2010, trade between China and North Korea was worth $3.5 billion, up 29.6 percent from 2009, according to Chinese customs statistics. China's bilateral trade with South Korea was worth $207.2 billion.

(Additional reporting by Jeremy Lawrence and David Chance in SEOUL; Editing by Kim Coghill)