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[Editorial] Hu’s message to Kim

China’s belated announcement on North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s five-day visit to its northeastern provinces made clear what message the host, President Hu Jintao, gave his guest in their meeting on Friday in Changchun. Hu essentially asked the North not to raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula and to follow in the footsteps of China by reforming and opening up its economy.

Beijing broke its silence about Kim’s tour only minutes after he crossed the Duman (Tumen) River Monday afternoon to return to Pyongyang. The official Xinhua News Agency summarized the conversation between the two leaders which exposed what the two allies wanted from each other.

First, Hu called for the maintenance of high-level contacts on a regular basis. Second, bilateral trade and economic cooperation should be advanced through market operations at the initiatives of enterprises under government guidance. Third, strategic communication should be strengthened via prompt, thorough and in-depth dialogues to cope with regional and international situations.

While emphasizing these principles, Hu lectured Kim on China’s experiences of a reform and opening-up drive over the past three decades for the central task of economic development and socialist modernization. Xinhua News quoted him as saying: “Economic development calls for self-dependence but cannot be achieved without cooperating with the outside world. This is the inevitable path of the times that accelerates the development of a country.”

At one point in their discussion on security affairs, Hu referred to the U.N. Security Council presidential statement on the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan. He stressed the need to maintain peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula which “accords with the common aspiration of the people.” These remarks indicate China’s consideration of the attack as a serious threat to the regional peace although it had deterred the UNSC from adopting a resolution directly condemning North Korea.

Kim Jong-il’s reported expression of hope for an early resumption of the six-party talks and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula could just be lip service to his hosts, who have endeavored to resolve the issue through the multilateral process over the past seven years. But it is certain that China pressed the North to return to the Beijing conference table, which it has boycotted since early last year.

The Chinese and North Korean announcements on Kim’s visit could not explain the atmosphere of urgency and secrecy which prevailed throughout the tour as well as the summit talks in Changchun. Kim hurriedly left for the tour on Thursday when former U.S. President Jimmy Carter was in Pyongyang to get the release of a jailed American citizen. It was particularly discourteous in that Carter was the last foreign guest of Kim’s father, Kim Il-sung, before his death in 1994.

Speculations had it that the North Korean leader with deteriorating health might have wanted to have the Chinese leadership endorse his plan to transfer power to his third son Kim Jong-eun. In return for his cooperation with China in its efforts to resume the six-party talks, Kim must have also asked for generous economic aid plus emergency supplies for the relief of flood victims.

With its advice on economic reform and openness, China is believed to have consented to a certain level of aid to the North to help stabilize its economy, which is staggering after the botched currency reform late last year. Yet, there was little hint of China making any positive response to the dynastic power transfer plan.

In the summit talks, Kim repeatedly emphasized the importance of developing DPRK-China friendship “for generations and centuries.” Xinhua did not report these remarks by itself but quoted a dispatch from the North Korean official Central News Agency. The KCNA quoted Kim as saying, according to Xinhua: “With the international situation remaining complicated, it was the important historical mission of the DPRK to hand over the baton of the traditional friendship to the next generation as a precious asset.”

The North Korean entourage also toured some monuments of DPRK founder Kim Il-sung’s alleged armed resistance against Japanese colonialists in alliance with Chinese communists. On this pilgrimage, Xinhua reported, Kim Jong-il appreciated the “friendship created by older generations of revolutionaries from both countries.” Here, we again detect the eagerness of the Kim family to convince the peoples of the North and China of the historical inevitability of a father-to-son power conveyance for the second time.

While the complex scenario was being played out by the leaders of the two allies, Beijing showed some sincerity toward South Korea with which it has steadily developed bilateral relations over the past 18 years to what the two neighbors termed a “strategic cooperative partnership.” Wu Dawei, the Chinese chief delegate to the six-party denuclearization talks, came to Seoul Friday for consultation on how to resume the long-stalled conference.

The Cheonan incident in March posed China a most delicate geopolitical problem. It chose to support a dependent regime on its flank which is fingered by the international community as the culprit. The economic and political burdens are growing heavy despite the North’s strategic usefulness.

Beijing invited Kim for the second top-level meeting in three months to sort things out in the ever cumbersome ties with Pyongyang, which now involve the embarrassing question of dynastic power succession. Kim Jong-il may have passed the test with verbal pledges of allegiance but Beijing’s leaders will continue to weigh what will be the better choice -- the North or the South -- for its interests and regional and global peace. When the next G20 conference opens in Seoul in November, they will perhaps have a clearer vision for the future.