In China, Kim Jong Il studies the reforms he’s spent decades resisting


This undated picture, released from Korean Central News Agency on May 10 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, right, and China's President Hu Jintao during a meeting in Beijing. (KCNA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

North Korea’s leader traveled through China this week to observe the very economic reforms that he has resisted for decades. Chauffeured in an armored train and convoy of black Audi sedans, Kim Jong Il toured an automobile factory, a solar panel plant and a discount store, where he reportedly inquired about cooking oil but didn’t buy anything.

Kim’s fling with Chinese commercialism — capped by a sit-down Wednesday in Beijing with Chinese President Hu Jintao — fostered the latest hopeful talk that North Korea will open the world’s most controlled economy. For outside analysts, though, the trip revealed the odd stagecraft North Korea must perform as it bluffs interest in reform and then converts China’s approval into the aid and diplomatic support Kim needs to keep his country intact.

“To get these things [Kim] may have to mouth platitudes about reform, privately, or maybe even publicly,” Marcus Noland, a Washington-based North Korea economics expert, said in an e-mail. “But I am quite skeptical of either his true interest or even his capacity to implement.”

Having promised his 25 million people that North Korea will transform by 2012 into a “strong and prosperous” nation, Kim has turned to China, Pyongyang’s most important trade partner and benefactor. Kim, 69, wants to gain Beijing’s backing for plans to pass power to his youngest son, Kim Jong Eun. He also needs increased food aid, with one-quarter of his country vulnerable to shortages, according to a recent U.N. report.

But analysts say that none of this can come at the expense of major market reforms, which would weaken North Korea’s state-controlled system and, in turn, jeopardize the Kim family leadership business.

Though Kim’s visits to China usually compel silence from Chinese authorities, Premier Wen Jiabao told South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Sunday that this trip would allow Kim to observe, and potentially adopt, market-oriented reforms. Kim has spent six days on the road amid the highest-profile of his eight trips across the border, traveling more than 2,000 miles. One night, Kim dined at a Holiday Inn. He also met with China’s former president, Jiang Zemin.

North Korea experts in Seoul and Washington point out that Kim, for decades, has both marveled at China’s development and rejected its policies. In 1983, Kim — then North Korea’s leader-in-training, with his father, Kim Il Sung, still alive — visited China for the first time. On a train ride from Nanjing to Beijing, he met with reformist Hu Yaobang, who talked about China’s evolving policies. Kim, who took power in 1994, didn’t return to China for almost two decades.

In Shanghai in 2001, Kim, according to a North Korean news account, toured the Shanghai Stock Exchange, the Shanghai subway system, a high-tech park and the international convention center. The Shanghai experience influenced Kim in at least one way: He returned to Pyongyang and called for the education of new architects.

Under Kim, North Korea has instituted fitful economic ­changes, but those steps have often been followed by swift reversals or counter-policies. Pyongyang authorities have advocated for limited private trade; then they’ve cracked down on it. In 2009, a currency revaluation wiped out the savings of a growing lower-middle class, hurting the burgeoning open markets.

North Korea does maintain several joint development projects with China along their shared border. The Chosun Ilbo, a major Seoul daily, reported that the countries will join in two more projects this month. Isolated from much of the international community, and increasingly ignored by South Korea, Pyongyang is “apparently trying to show that effects of economic sanctions by the South can be balanced out by economic cooperation with China,” the paper wrote.

Kim’s trip to China continued as a U.S. State Department team arrived Tuesday in Pyongyang to assess the country’s food situation and explore the resumption of food aid. The United States hasn’t delivered food aid to North Korea since 2009, and critics suggest that there is insufficient transparency to monitor donations.

Last week, four senators wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, expressing skepticism about food aid to the North.

“It seems that the other central goal of North Korea’s food aid program is to ensure ample food stocks for 2012, when Kim Jong Il’s regime will seek to prove its legitimacy by demonstrating it is a ‘powerful and prosperous country,’ ” said the letter from Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), James Webb (D-Va.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). “This, too, is not an effort that the international community should play any part in bolstering.”

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