North Korea's enigmatic leader makes 'secret visit'

North Korea's Kim Jong II arrived in Beijing Monday with a nuclear bargaining chip in his pocket.

On Day 2 of Kim Jong Il's not-so-secret state visit to China, officials here were tying themselves in semantic knots, trying to avoid actually acknowledging that one of Asia's most enigmatic and brutal leaders had arrived Monday.

Mr. Kim has actively sought a meeting in Beijing to help stabilize a recently shaky position with old ally China. Until this week, the North Korean strongman had not met his large neighbor's new generation of leaders. Kim arrives at a time of mixed promise and peril for his isolated, police-state regime, and he comes to meet President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao with his nuclear bargaining chip in his pocket.

China is expected to send the unpredictable Kim a clear message opposing any effort to take North Korea's nuclear program further by actually testing a nuclear device. A test might "prove" that the North does have a viable nuclear option, experts say, but this would be regarded as highly destabilizing in Asia.

"China's influence on Kim is bound to act as a moderating influence, and the US should applaud that," says David Steinberg, dean of Asian affairs at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Washington.

Kim rarely travels outside his highly controlled regime, where he is worshiped like a god but where as many as a million North Koreans live in gulag-like prison camps. Kim may be traveling in part to demonstrate strength inside Pyongyang, experts say. But certainly he needs funds, food, and energy for his impoverished state, and better relations with Beijing. China once rescued Kim's father, Kim Il Sung, from defeat in the Korean War - but the communist revolution here has given way to the kind of economic boom, disregard of ideology, and opening to the world that could unravel a highly controlled regime like that of the North, experts suggest.

Kim arrives for his first visit since 2001 only days after Vice President Richard Cheney was here urging China to continue pressuring North Korea to dismantle its "dangerous" nuclear program. Mr. Cheney brought new evidence from Pakistani nuclear physicist Abdul Qadeer Khan, who said he'd visited a North Korean mountain hideaway where he was shown three nuclear devices.

Until recently, Chinese authorities temporized over how serious the North's nuclear program is. But open threats by Kim's diplomats during the Beijing-hosted six-party talks last summer, and new intelligence, are not being ignored, sources say.

At the same time, political developments in South Korea may improve Kim's position on the peninsula. Last week the young, liberal, Uri Party in the south won the parliamentary elections. Uri includes a strong group of the so-called 386ers - opponents of the right-wing regime in Seoul who were in their 30s when the term was coined, came of political age in the 1980's and were born in the 1960s. They tend to be supportive of generous overtures to the Kim regime, including efforts to get the world community to commit to loans and investment in the North. Pyongyang state media has made favorable comments about the Uri victory; the younger generation in South Korea are regarded as less pro-American than their elders, a state of affairs that is appreciated in Pyongyang.

Kim is expected to be in Beijing until April 22. Along with Hu Jintao, he will meet premier Wen; former president Jiang Zemin, who still holds the reins of China's People's Liberation Army; and Standing Committee power brokers Wu Bangguo and Zeng Qinghong.

The current nuclear dynamics on the Korean peninsula were triggered in October 2002 following an admission to US envoy James Kelley in Pyongyang that the North had a uranium nuclear program as well as a plutonium program. Over the following months, a nuclear crisis developed as the North kicked out UN nuclear inspectors and moved hundreds of spent plutonium fuel rods used in the processing of weapons-grade material. (Currently, US scientists and intelligence officials do not have a clear idea of the state of play of the North's atomic program.)

Last spring, China dramatically shifted its approach toward the Koreas. Beijing began, with US urging, to host multilateral talks on the future of the Korean peninsula - talks that it now desires to institutionalize as a permanent "mechanism," as Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan told reporters Tuesday.

Kim is thought to be waiting until the November US elections to develop a strategy for dealing with nemesis America. Beijing officials are reportedly urging him to take the next set of six-party talks, planned for July, seriously - including much needed North Korean participation in a set of working groups that China is attempting to inaugurate.

Pyongyang appeared to agree to the working groups in the last set of meetings here in February.

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