There aren’t many people who have the option of going to China on their own personal train. And the number who can just cruise into Dalian unannounced reduces the ranks to one. Step forward Kim Jong-il, maverick diplomatist, and master of the unexpected.
Last week the Chinese press grappled with a series of questions. Was Kim’s visit an official one, for example? Did China’s leaders even know he was coming? Thus when he first entered the country, the local media was, initially, stonily silent.
Was his journey connected to the sinking of a South Korean naval ship just weeks ago? Or was he visiting more in his capacity as the director of Pyongyang’s production of The Dream of the Red Chamber – which opened in Beijing on May 6? The South Korean government hasn’t said publicly whether Kim’s regime was behind the torpedo that sank the corvette Cheonan (killing 46 sailors).
But most observers think it will eventually come out. That leaves North Korea at real risk of further UN sanctions and Kim in need of China’s support in the Security Council (again). China’s leaders would certainly like a little more leverage over their troublesome neighbour. “Pyongyang likes to tell us about a nuclear test half an hour before it happens,” Professor Liu Ming told the South China Morning Post. This time round, President Hu Jintao pressed Kim again to “reinforce strategic cooperation”.
“Beijing probably has asked for information on the [torpedo] incident, but Kim probably didn’t give Chinese officials anything they want to know”, explained Liu, an expert in Korean affairs. “North Korea never really tells us what’s going on over their side.”
It fell to Premier Wen Jiabao to persuade Kim to do more to adopt another key Chinese goal: the transformation of the moribund North Korean economy. Kim’s Stalinist policies have decimated agriculture and industry alike, and left the country dependent on Chinese aid. Beijing does not want to foot the bill indefinitely, and Wen hoped that a tour of the Dalian Special Economic Zone would demonstrate the benefits that ‘reform and opening’ had brought to China.
Did Kim pay any attention? His ham-fisted currency reforms last year were disastrous for the North Korean economy, and there have been reports of dissent among his normally compliant subjects. That has stoked Beijing’s fears that more refugees could soon be crossing the border.
In the meantime, efforts continue to bring Kim to heel. “He is probably the only world leader who can make Beijing look powerless,” observed the Financial Times.
Perhaps it’s time to tear up those train tracks…
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