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‘Economy tops Kim-Hu summit agenda’

Experts say Beijing may have pressured North Korean leader on nuke talks


North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is likely to have pleaded for steady financial support from China, his impoverished state’s last-remaining benefactor, during his purported talks with President Hu Jintao, officials and analysts here said Thursday.

The reclusive leader of Pyongyang arrived in Beijing the previous day for an apparent summit with Hu, according to local reports, as speculation flew over the North’s deepening food shortages and possible willingness to reform its ailing economy.

China, Pyongyang’s historical ally, has often played the role of mediator between the unpredictable state and regional powers including the U.S. and South Korea, keen to prevent changes that might occur in the case of the Kim regime’s collapse. Although North Korea often causes it a headache, being Pyongyang’s sole ally gives Beijing the upper hand over the U.S. in issues related to regional security and economy.

Beijing has also been accelerating efforts to resume the stalled multinational talks aimed at denuclearizing Pyongyang, which will secure food assistance for the North from dialogue partners.

“If they had met, the two would have discussed a wide range of issues for many hours as they did in their past meetings,” a Seoul official said over the telephone, asking not to be named until the summit is officially confirmed.

The Chinese media has so far remained silent about Kim’s visit, keeping to the longstanding practice of not confirming the trip until after he is safely back at home. The 69-year-old North Korean dictator, who rarely travels abroad, is highly cautious about revealing his whereabouts to outsiders.

The only official comment about Kim’s trip so far is that by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who told South Korean President Lee Myung-bak that Beijing invited Kim to “observe and learn” China’s market-oriented reforms. Kim’s much-veiled trip reportedly began Friday last week.

“Economy, naturally, would have been the most important issue this time,” the Seoul official added. “The results of the talks are likely to be reflected in the North’s attitude toward the U.S. delegation currently visiting there.”

As Kim was making his days-long trip to Beijing as well as industrial facilities in eastern and northern China, a fact-finding team led by U.S. special envoy on North Korean human rights Robert King arrived in North Korea to examine its food conditions. The delegation is expected to meet with senior Pyongyang officials to discuss outsiders’ monitoring of the distribution of donated food.

International charity groups have been escalating calls for countries to resume sending food to North Korea in consideration of its starving people rather than its dictator’s ongoing nuclear ambitions and provocations.

The World Food Program concluded in March that more than 6 million North Koreans, about a quarter of the communist state’s population, need urgent aid of some 475,000 tons of food.

Although Washington says it will only make up its mind after the mission is over, observers say the dispatch hints at a growing likeliness of the U.S. resuming its long-stalled food aid to Pyongyang. Washington stopped sending food to Pyongyang as of March 2009 shortly after the North’s second nuclear test.

The fact that Kim and Hu held talks again in less than a year also indicates that the two allies are growing keener to have the stalled six-nation nuclear talks restart at an early date, analysts say.

During their previous summit in August last year, China’s Hu had urged Kim to open his isolated country for economic and diplomatic purposes, and make more effort in mending ties with Seoul.

China has been, for months, trying to get the two Koreas to hold nuclear talks and mend ties as the first step in restarting larger-scale negotiations.

Hosted by China, the six-nation dialogue, also involving the two Koreas, the U.S., Japan and Russia, has been stalled since the end of 2008, fueling regional concerns over Pyongyang’s ongoing nuclear ambitions.

South Korea, which suffered two deadly attacks from the North that killed 50 of its people last year, has been firm not to resume aid or dialogue until a proper apology is offered. Pyongyang continues to deny responsibility.

China “may have persuaded North Korea to make the necessary move to resume the talks in return for financial aid,” Yang Moo-jin, a North Korean expert in Seoul said. “If North Korea is desperate enough, it would take up the offer of a big economic assistance in exchange for, say, letting outside experts examine its nuclear facilities.”

Beijing’s financial assistance has been growing more vital for Pyongyang since 2008, when it was slapped with strict economic sanctions for conducting a second atomic test.

China and North Korea have long been seeking economic cooperation that may include a joint project to turn an island in the Yalu River on their border into an industrial complex.

Kim is also likely to have repeated his plea to have China officially approve of its hereditary succession plans, observers say.

Having suffered a stroke in 2008 and continuing to suffer from poor health, the incumbent Kim has been moving to hand over his impoverished regime to his youngest son Jong-un, who is still in his 20s and lacks experience.

North Korea, which went through a similar father-to-son power transition in 1994, considers Beijing’s endorsement important.

By Shin Hae-in (hayney@heraldcorp.com)
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