By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 19, 2006
BEIJING, Jan. 18 -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Il finished a secretive nine-day visit to China on Wednesday after reaffirming his government's commitment to six-nation talks on dismantling its nuclear weapons program and pledging to work with the Chinese to "overcome the present difficulties" in the negotiations.
Ending more than a week of official silence on the trip, Chinese and North Korean state media said Kim left the country after touring six cities and meeting with President Hu Jintao. It was their second meeting in four months, suggesting their two nations, longtime allies, were seeking to narrow their differences in the stalled nuclear talks.
Kim's departure was announced the same day the chief U.S. negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, made an unscheduled trip to Beijing and met with his North Korean counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan, in a session hosted by the Chinese, diplomats said.
Hill, who also visited Beijing last week during an Asian tour that included stops in Japan and South Korea, declined to say whether he met with the North Koreans. "We had a meeting hosted by the Chinese. I talked to the Chinese. It was a good discussion. There is no development, nothing to report," he told reporters at the airport before leaving.
State-run China Central Television broadcast footage of Kim shaking hands and meeting with Hu and other senior Chinese leaders. Wearing a gray tunic suit, and at times a khaki jacket and sunglasses, the reclusive North Korean leader was also shown visiting an agricultural research center, factories and ports, and riding a subway.
The 10-minute report said that Kim toured the cities of Wuhan and Yichang in central Hubei province and Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Zhuhai in southern Guangdong province, and that he praised the stunning economic progress achieved by China's market reforms.
The visit, which began Jan. 10, was Kim's fourth to China since 2000, and it again raised the possibility that he is considering major economic reforms similar to those adopted here. In line with past practice, neither China nor North Korea confirmed the trip until after Kim's departure.
In his meeting with Hu, Kim "spoke of the difficulties lying in the process of the six-party talks" but said North Korea remained committed to negotiating a peaceful settlement and a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, according to the official Korean Central News Agency. Kim also reaffirmed a September agreement in which North Korea promised to disarm in exchange for aid, diplomatic recognition and security guarantees.
Negotiators have not worked out a plan to implement that deal, and North Korea has refused to return to the talks unless the United States ends a crackdown on firms suspected of involvement in alleged North Korean counterfeiting, smuggling and drug trafficking operations.
State media in China and North Korea made no mention of the demand in their coverage of Kim's visit. Official reports in both countries said only that Kim pledged to work with China to "overcome the present difficulties encountered by the six-party talks."
China has not taken a public position on the North Korean demand, and there was no sign Hu said anything on the matter in official media reports. The official New China News Agency said Hu reiterated his support for the six-nation talks, which China hosts and which include the United States, Japan, Russia and the two Koreas.
State media did not say whether Hu agreed to provide North Korea's feeble economy with more aid. But Kim was quoted thanking Chinese leaders "for rendering disinterested assistance" to North Korea "each time it faced difficulties."
China is the North's only close ally and its main source of fuel and other aid. Chinese sources say major aid packages are usually promised when leaders of the two countries meet, including during Hu's visit to Pyongyang in October.
Asian diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said any economic aid could ease the pain of the U.S. crackdown on North Korean finances and help persuade Kim to return to the talks. U.S. action against a bank in the Chinese territory of Macau in September led authorities there to freeze several accounts believed to contain funds used by Kim and his family, the diplomats said.