North Korea's Kim Jong Il arrives in China, amid internal, external tensions

By Lauren Keane
Tuesday, May 4, 2010

BEIJING -- A special train carrying Kim Jong Il arrived in China early Monday for a much-anticipated visit by the North Korean leader. Kim is expected to appeal to China for economic aid and, in return, perhaps agree to return to the stalled six-party nuclear talks.

The visit is taking place at a time of heightened tension between Pyongyang and South Korea, a key U.S. ally. A deepening investigation into the sinking of a South Korean warship in late March has prompted suspicion that North Korea was the perpetrator of the attack. There are growing worries that North Korea may be preparing for a third nuclear test. And the country's faltering economy has been unraveling at a potentially calamitous rate.

Neither the Chinese nor the North Korean government confirmed Kim's trip, but his past visits have not been officially acknowledged until they were over. The visit is his first to China since 2006.

South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported that the 17-car train arrived just before dawn, under heavy security, at the Chinese border city of Dandong, just across the Yalu River from North Korea. Reports noted that regular passenger trains from North Korea have four or five cars and always arrive in the afternoon.

A key question for North Korea watchers is whether Kim's third son and potential heir, Kim Jong Eun, accompanied him on the trip, which would allow the younger Kim to meet his future Chinese counterparts. His presence would strengthen speculation that his ailing father is preparing to transfer power. South Korean broadcasters reported last year that Kim Jong Il has pancreatic cancer.

China remains North Korea's most significant benefactor and ally, and Kim has turned to China for help in the past. North Korea's economic situation is thought to have deteriorated significantly since its botched currency revaluation in November, which wiped out personal savings and triggered steep price increases, causing rare protests. The top finance official for the country's ruling Workers' Party was reportedly fired as a result. North Korea's food situation is also thought to be especially dire this spring, before the year's crops have matured.

On past visits, Chinese officials have escorted Kim to several booming Chinese cities to try to convince him of the inherent possibilities of a more capitalist approach to development. A visit this time might have a similar message: By midmorning Monday, reports placed a Kim's 35-car motorcade in Dalian, a port city in China's industrial northeast, about five hours from Dandong.

Analysts say China is not expected to agree to increase economic or food aid without movement from North Korea on the stalled six-party talks, the on-and-off denuclearization negotiations that lost steam early last year.

China is the country with the most leverage to persuade North Korea to return to the stalled six-party talks, the on-and-off denuclearization negotiations that lost steam early last year. But even if China were to succeed in doing so, progress would be hampered by South Korea's position that it will not continue negotiations if North Korea is found to have been involved in the sinking of the South Korean warship.

"Whenever North Korea is having troubles with other countries, it always plays the China card," said Zhang Liangui, a retired professor at the Institute of International Strategic Studies, at the Party School of the Central Committee, the Communist Party of China. "That makes the U.S. and South Korea nervous. But it will just as easily play the China card with the U.S. later on. This visit is nothing more than a diplomatic tactic, a kind of performance. It's not really about the real issues on the table."

Researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.

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