Following reports by international media last week about a suspected visit by North Korean (DPRK) leader Kim Jong-il to China, Chinese state media confirmed this yesterday. An article on the website of the China Daily revealed that Kim was in the country from the 26th to the 30th of August at the invitation of Hu Jintao, with whom he held talks last Friday.
Aside from the usual state pleasantries, Hu apparently focused discussions on increasing strategic communication and economic co-operation between the DPRK and the PRC, suggesting that successful economic development comes as a result of a balance between self-dependence and favourable links with other nations. This can be seen as an effort by the Chinese President to try and urge the North Korean leadership away from Pyongyang's often confrontational and hostile foreign policy, in the hope that more favourable diplomatic relations between the DPRK and the outside world might allow for the transformation of the country's struggling economy along the lines of the Chinese 'opening up' model.
Coverage of the trip in the People's Daily highlighted several positive signals by Kim Jong-il over the continuing nuclear tensions on the Korean Peninsula, with him reiterating the DPRK's commitment to peace in the region and its willingness to work with China to achieve this. Opinion within China and without over whether these are encouraging signs or not has been divided. Ultimately, these are statements of intent rather than actual policies. Whether talks over the future of the Korean region can resume (after the alleged sinking of a South Korean ship by North Korea derailed them earlier this year) will much depend on whether the United States can find enough common ground with the DPRK, and also with Russia and China (other countries involved in the talks). With the US rigidly sticking to its backing of South Korea, the room for manoeuvre at present seems especially small. Nevertheless, the fact that the South has dropped its demand that the DPRK apologise for the sinking of its ship before it can come back to the negotiation table is a sign that there is still some desire to bring the talks to fruition.
Earlier speculation over whether Kim's trip was also intended to secure China's backing for the succession of his son (Kim Jong-un) once the Supreme Leader is deceased has not been proved correct one way or the other. While the Korean Central New Agency's (KCNA) account of the trip does not include Kim Jong-un amongst the list of those who travelled with Kim Jong-il, this does not mean that the former was not on the trip, only that both sides agreed not to mention his presence. However, references reported by the KCNA that the North Korean leader made to the links between his father and the north-east China region are telling. As well as being the expected lip-service to the DPRK's Eternal President, Kim's appeal to his father's revolutionary experiences can be construed as an attempt to stress the Kim dynasty's communist pedigree and the continuing role the family should play in North Korean politics. While Chinese media did not report such direct statements, Xinhua's coverage alluded to pledges made by Hu Jintao to boost relations between the PRC and the DPRK with the coming of each new political generation. Arguably, this is tacit support for Kim Jong-un taking over from his father.
It is interesting to compare how the Chinese and North Korean media handled the visit. As suggested by the above example, Chinese accounts were more reserved than reports by the KCNA. While Beijing ultimately would have welcomed much of the comments made during Kim's visit, it is clear that China sees a way forward in demonstrating less fervour than Pyongyang, to imply a sense of China's realism over the future of the Korean Peninsula to the other parties involved. Recent visits by Chinese official Wu Dawei to South Korea and Japan show that the PRC is actively trying to work on several fronts rather than backing the DPRK to the hilt, as it may have been inclined to do in years gone by. The prospect of talks resuming anytime soon seems unlikely, with America having just imposed new economic sanctions on North Korea. However, this latest trip by Kim Jong-il to China (and his second in a year) gives hope that Beijing could steer the DPRK towards a position of compromise.