North Korea's Kim Jong-il visits China with hat in hand, and a threat

North Korea’s need for aid may have prompted Kim Jong-il's visit to China. But the isolated nation has leverage over its powerful ally: instability next door if China says no.

A vehicle that is believed to be carrying North Korean leader Kim Jong-il exits the Diaoyutai State Guest House, in Beijing Thursday.

As the elusive North Korean leader Kim Jong-il continued his mysterious visit to China Thursday, and as Chinese officials continued to refuse to confirm his presence, scholars here cautioned against expecting Beijing to exert decisive influence over its rogue ally’s nuclear ambitions.

Mr. Kim’s desperate need for diplomatic and economic aid from China to prop up his regime, these academics say, is matched only by China’s fear of the consequences should its wayward neighbor descend into chaos.

“Kim knows that we don’t like him but that we need him,” suggests Cai Jian, deputy head of the Center for Korean Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. “So he kidnaps China and blackmails us.”

The North Korean leader, traveling in a heavily guarded motorcade on streets cleared of other vehicles, was reportedly meeting Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao Thursday, after a reported dinner with President Hu Jintao Wednesday night.

Asked about Kim’s presence, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman would say only that “if the leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea comes to China, the relevant information will be released in due course.”

Desperate for aid, and stability

Kim’s discussions are believed to center on the prospects for Chinese aid to North Korea, where food is in increasingly short supply and the stuttering economy was further weakened last year by a bungled currency reform that has fueled inflation.

When Prime Minister Wen visited Pyongyang this past October, he promised a $200 million line of credit and a string of investment projects, but analysts here say there have been no signs that the aid has been forthcoming.

“They need aid more than ever, and it seems that China is the only possible source,” says Professor Cai.

“Without Chinese aid North Korea cannot survive,” adds Chen Fengjun, a North Korea expert at Peking University’s School of International Studies.

Neighbors, good or bad

That dependence, however, gives Beijing less leverage over Pyongyang than might be thought, he argues.

“We have to help Kim solve his problems,” says Professor Chen. “If we push North Korea towards the American side, that could endanger Chinese security. We have to keep Kim on our side to ensure North Korea’s stability. They are neighbors, and we need good relations with them whether they are good or bad neighbors.”

At the same time, Chinese officials fear, economic collapse in North Korea could lead to chaos there and a flood of refugees across the border into China.

“China’s two main interests in North Korea are stability and denuclearization, but the top priority is stability,” says Cai.

China has led the diplomatic efforts in recent years to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear ambitions, chairing the six-party talks aimed at a deal whereby North Korea would give up its nuclear program in return for international economic aid and diplomatic acceptance.

They have so far failed; Pyongyang last year pulled out of the negotiations and tested a nuclear device, prompting China to support stricter United Nations sanctions against its ally.

Breaking an impasse

The dangers of the current deadlock were thrown into sharp relief in March, when an explosion sank a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46 sailors. South Korean investigators are said to be increasingly suspicious that a North Korean torpedo sunk the ship.

Though Pyongyang has vehemently denied such accusations, some analysts here believe they are not far-fetched. An attack “could have been designed to break the logjam,” suggests Cai. “North Korea has often played this sort of trick, making trouble to get attention and then negotiating.”

China will not offer food, fuel, and other assistance, says Chen, unless Kim returns to the six-party negotiations. “China will offer aid and North Korea will reciprocate by resuming the six-party talks on denuclearization” he says. “If that happens it will be an important result of Chinese diplomacy.”

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