With an important green light from China, efforts to endi North Korea's isolation and at further joining the two estranged Koreas continue to gain momentum.
Reports last week of a secret train carrying North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to Shanghai were confirmed when Mr. Kim was seen exiting Shanghai's Grand Theater. A high-level entourage from North Asia's most isolated, mysterious, and impoverished state was accompanying the "Dear Leader," as Kim is known at home, on a visual feast to China's showcase economic sites: the Shanghai stock market, a General Motors auto plant, a Japanese semiconductor firm, and Shanghai's Pudong industrial park, home of the state-of-the-art, 88-story Jin Mao Tower, containing the highest hotel in the world.
The informal state visit, which ended Saturday, is only Kim's second known trip outside Korea in 18 years - he visited Beijing last May - and clearly signals his desire to learn from China's success at creating a thriving open market while retaining a communist identity and social control, analysts say.
Since last June, when Kim hosted an unprecedented summit with South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, the North's image as an implacably remote "rogue" state has been softening. Shots of a smiling and jocular Kim Jong Il on Chinese TV this weekend may further buff the leader's image.
Still, Chinese officials resisted confirming the Jan. 15-20 visit - even while foreign media were told through leaks that Kim was hosted in Shanghai by Zhu Rongji, the Chinese premier and former Shanghai mayor.
Not until reporters were called to an unusual 8:30 p.m. press conference on Saturday night was the scale of the Chinese involvement officially revealed, and the diplomatic dimension of the trip given shape. Insiders say Chinese leaders wanted to fully gauge their interaction with Kim and discern his intent before going public. At the press conference, spokesman Zhu Bangzao confirmed that Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Kim had met earlier, saying that President Jiang "hoped that the two Koreas would overcome all their difficulties."
Western sources characterized the meeting as "an important green light for another North-South summit. It sounds like China has really signed off on rapprochement on the Korean peninsula," says one. "China wants to bring North Korea more into the community of nations, and make it less unpredictable, and more stable."
Mr. Zhu also told reporters that China's president affirmed the role of both the United States and Japan in a Korean rapprochement, and that Mr. Jiang accepted an open invitation by Kim to visit Pyongyang, though no date was set.
In recent years, North Korea has appeared de facto driven into the arms of the People's Republic of China. Pyongyang no longer has its benefactor, the former Soviet Union. Rivaled only by cold war Albania for a rigorous policy of introversion, lack of outside contact, and hard-line communist orthodoxy, North Korea's dysfunctional 1950s-style Soviet economy is unable to feed its people. Last month the North asked the South to borrow 500,000 kilowatts of electricity.
State assets in the North are nearly all subordinate to the military, which has developed long-range missile capacity - and reportedly flirted with nuclear weapons accession.
Chinese confirmation that top North Korean generals accompanied Kim here was significant. At a banquet hosted for Kim by President Jiang, Kim described China's economic reforms as "correct." (By contrast, in his 1983 trip to Beijing, Kim denounced China's liberalization as "revisionist.")
Signs of change
"The Chinese felt after the visit that Kim is definitely moving toward some kind of North Korean-style economic reform," one Western source reports. "This would be unprecedented."
Early in January, Kim released a series of media statements on "new thinking" about economic rebuilding. The past two decades of economic success in China would be a natural model, analysts say. China has managed a 1980s Soviet-style perestroika, or economic opening to the West - but without the glasnost, or free exchange of ideas, championed by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Glasnost is considered the policy that likely toppled the Soviet empire, an outcome that may send shivers into the North Korean hardline power structure.
Still, the North is opening slowly. North Korean officials have invited further talks on South Korean investment and security, and say they are prepared for Red Cross visits.
Pyongyang last year began diplomatic ties with Britain, Italy, Canada, Australia - and last week with the Netherlands.
Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited the North in October, although optimists failed to get their hoped-for trip to Pyongyang by Bill Clinton.
Prior to Saturday's press conference, some analysts expressed hope for an announced breakthrough on the four-party talks that would formally end the Korean War, replacing an armistice with a peace treaty. China, which lost hundreds of thousands of troops in that war, backed the talks, along with the US and South Korea. But two years ago, North Korea ceased participating - and they were not mentioned Saturday.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society