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Visiting Russia, Kim Jong-il casts nervous eye on Tripoli

North Korea's Kim Jong-il is visiting Russia to bolster diplomatic support. A key issue is the ability of Kim's son and heir to rule with an iron hand – an issue getting renewed attention as Libyan rebels advance into Tripoli.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / August 22, 2011

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il receives a painting during a welcoming ceremony upon his arrival in Novobureyskaya, Amur province, Aug. 21. Mr. Kim visited one of Russia's largest hydro power stations on Sunday, part of a tour of the country's Far East before talks with President Dmitry Medvedev, Russian news agencies said.

www.portamur.ru/Reuters

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North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il, visiting Russia this week, is looking for political and diplomatic support from Russian leaders amid questions about his third son’s ability to succeed him – and the possible impact of uprisings in the Middle East on stability in his own country.

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While Mr. Kim looks at power plants as his armored train takes him to the summit in Siberia with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the view here is that he wants much more than a deal for electricity or natural gas.

At the top of his concerns, say analysts, are the implications of the downfall of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi on his plans to perpetuate his dynasty.

“That dynamic is probably much more alarming to Kim Jong-il than anything else,” says Lee Jong-min, dean of international studies at Yonsei University here. “He’s prompted by the need to bolster his power.”

Although the North Korean media shield most of the country’s 24 milliion people from news about the Middle East, word of rebellion seeps through via clandestine radios and word of mouth from people who cross the Tumen and Yalu river borders into China on illicit trading expeditions.

It’s because of the fear of revolutionary fervor spreading to North Korea, says Mr. Lee, that Kim is anxious to convince Russian leaders that his third son, Kim Jong-un, in his late 20s, is strong enough to be able to rule a populace enervated by years of famine and disease.

“His visit is all tied to succession in North Korea,” Lee goes on. “He wants to buff up his son’s standing. That’s the major driver.”

Balancing Russia and China

Kim’s visit seems especially portentous, moreover, considering that he’s visited China five times since he last journeyed to Russia in August 2002 for a meeting with Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

North Korea has won China’s possibly begrudging endorsement of Kim Jong-un as heir to power along with promises of a steady flow of supplies to keep the regime on life support.

Kim is assumed, however, to want to counterbalance China’s enormous influence with that of Russia, which shares a 12-mile border with North Korea as the Tumen River flows into the sea – and during the era of Soviet rule was a major ally and aid giver.

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