Reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong-il arrived in China yesterday in search of economic support and diplomatic protection from his only major ally, after bungled policies at home and military grandstanding that has exasperated the region.
China, which has propped up the North’s leaders for decades, is becoming increasingly fed up with its provocative neighbor, analysts say, but it is willing to bankroll Kim to prevent chaos on its border.
Kim, aware of Beijing’s predicament, is expected to demand sweeteners to rein in his military and return to international nuclear disarmament talks hosted by Beijing.
He crossed into China before dawn in his armored train and went to the thriving port city of Dalian. The hotel where he is staying has covered its facade in a billowing white sheet as part of security precautions.
Footage by NHK television showed Kim, wearing his trademark khaki outfit, surrounded by beefy Chinese security agents and a motorcade of black cars.
There has been no official confirmation of the trip. Reporters camping out in the Chinese border city of Dandong were hounded out of the area by Chinese security agents just before his special train crossed the river, while Chinese police impeded a South Korean crew from filming in Dalian.
The visit is Kim’s first trip abroad since a suspected stroke in 2008. Analysts are also wondering whether Kim’s youngest son, Jong-un, may be joining him so that he could introduce him as the heir to the family throne in Beijing.
Kim’s trip comes at an even more precarious time for the North’s already struggling economy, hit by UN sanctions to punish it for a nuclear test a year ago and a botched currency reform late last year that exacerbated inflation and sparked almost unheard of civil unrest.
“Beijing has shown great reluctance to forsake pariahs. If anything, it will reinforce the importance of Chinese investment because they will really be the only game in town,” said Peter Beck, a Korean affairs researcher at Stanford University.
Last year, bilateral trade between China and North Korea, with an estimated GDP of US$17 billion, was worth US$2.7 billion. As the North’s economy has grown weaker since Kim took over power in 1994, China has supplied more food, oil and goods that serve as a lifeline for his broken state.
Kim’s previous trips to China have led to steps that decreased the security risk the North poses to the region.