China and the World

Time for a change of Korea?

The message from Kim’s visit? Copy our economic reforms says Beijing

Time for a change of Korea?

In China again: Kim Jong-il

“Where can I find oil for a salad?” was the rather mundane enquiry made of supermarket staff in Yangzhou last Monday, according to the Daily Telegraph.

Disappointingly, the British newspaper doesn’t reveal if staff responded by gesturing vaguely towards a distant aisle before returning to their preferred task of checking their mobile phone messages. So WiC can only assume that that the customer concerned – Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s reclusive leader – found his way to the appropriate condiment shelf.

Salad oil secured, he would at least have been able to cross one item off his China shopping list.

Seasoned Korean-peninsula watchers have spent much of the last week second-guessing the other motives behind Kim’s latest trip to China – his third within a year.

Of course, it helps that the Dear Leader can cross the border by train (famously, he is a fearful flyer). Invitations from other hosts are thin on the ground too.

But the primary task of the eight-day tour, said the China Daily, was to learn more about China’s success in economic reform. Kim went on factory visits in five different cities, with a carmaker, an e-book producer and a solar panel manufacturer among those on the itinerary.

Previously his visits to China have been shrouded in secrecy, and announced only after he has returned to Pyongyang.

But on this occasion China seemed to want to make its intentions much clearer, with Wen Jiabao said to have informed South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in advance of the visit. The purpose: the North Koreans were being given “a chance to understand Chinese development and use it for their own development.” (Other Chinese newspapers claim there was also dialogue on denuclearisation.)

Kim’s own priorities may have been slightly different. He’s been looking for a fuller endorsement from Beijing for the promotion of his son, Kim Jong-un, to a senior role in the North Korean leadership and Korea analysts say the visiting delegation would have been eager to mention him by name. The reference in the official communiqué to “a continued flow of friendship from generation to generation” may have been scripted by the North Koreans with the 27 year-old in mind.

Apparently, eight of China’s nine most senior leaders greeted Kim personally at some stage during his visit, so he does seem to have been afforded plenty of face time. That will have been a relief, as relations with the Chinese are crucial to the Kim family future. Pyongyang’s dependence on China has grown from 53% of its international trade in 2005 to 83% last year, Bloomberg reports.

But if the hope was that handshakes would be followed with offers of boosted financial support and further food aid, Kim may well have been disappointed. The international press seems to think that China is becoming more insistent that the North Koreans learn a few more lessons from its own reform era – hence that itinerary of factory visits.

South Korea’s JoongAng Daily was typical in speculating that the Chinese leadership now sees cooperation as more shaped by economic reforms rather than through one-sided aid alone.

Similarly, in switching the focus to “private investment” initiatives between Chinese firms and their counterparts in North Korea (rather than more traditional state-to-state ties) Beijing could be hoping to limit some of the potential for diplomatic embarrassment should Pyongyang behave unpredictably in the future.

Previously, China’s status as a restraining influence on its neighbour has been called into question, especially after incidents like North Korean nuclear testing in 2009, the sinking of a South Korean frigate in May last year and the shelling of Yeonpyeung island in November.

China will hope that Kim’s visit will not only have satisfied his appetite for salad dressing, but also for needless confrontation.

Keeping Track: Last week we reported that Chinese officials have been pressuring North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to pursue wider economic reforms. And this week the Financial Times reported groundbreaking ceremonies at two new Sino-Korean economic zones in North Korea, the first time that shared initiatives of this type have been launched. The announcement was attended by Chen Deming, China’s commerce minister, and Chang Song-take, brother-in-law of the North Korean leader. Chen said the plan was to develop “government-led” but “market-oriented” zones close to the Chinese border.(10 June 2011)

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