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N. Korea steps up economic diplomacy

Publication Date : 15-08-2012


Jang visits China to seek greater economic cooperation; Pyongyang, Tokyo to hold talks


North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s powerful uncle is visiting China this week in what analysts say is part of intensifying economic diplomacy to attract more investment and aid to overhaul its moribund economy and strengthen its fledgling leader’s legitimacy.

Jang Song-thaek on Monday became the first top-level Pyongyang official to visit Beijing since the demise of longtime strongman Kim Jong-il last December.

Jang is seen as the most influential adviser to Kim, who is believed to be in his late 20s. The husband of the preceding ruler’s younger sister Kim Kyung-hui is vice chairman of the National Defence Commission and director of the ruling Workers’ Party’s administration, controlling core internal security affairs and large state projects.

Pyongyang is also moving to resume government-level talks with Tokyo for the first time in four years. Japan’s Kyoto News reported that the two countries will hold talks later this month to discuss the return of the remains of Japanese nationals who died in the North at the end of World War II.

Pyongyang is struggling to reestablish its economy, which has been devastated amid its pursuit of nuclear weapons, subsequent international isolation and failure to properly recover from natural disasters.

“Kim Jong-un wants to do something (to bring about change), for which he urgently needs cash. For now, it is difficult to get anything from South Korea or the US. Thus, it appears to be reaching out to China and Japan,” said Lee Cho-won, political science professor at Chung-Ang University.

“Jang’s visit to China may focus on calling on Beijing to offer more financial investment and help bolster bilateral economic cooperation. Kim appears to have a more open mind [in terms of reform] while trying to erase the color of his father’s failed economic policy.”

Jang’s trip to the North’s biggest patron comes as Pyongyang is seen expanding its implementation of the so-called June 28 economic measures that reportedly give more autonomy to the operation of state corporations and allow farmers to take in a certain proportion of their harvest.

Some call the measures a virtual renouncement of the socialist economic system. The reform moves appeared to have gained traction after Kim sacked conservative top military commander Ri Yong-ho in July.

Jang arrived in Beijing on Monday with his large entourage that reportedly includes Kim Yong-il, chief of the ruling party’s international affairs department, and Ri Kwang-kun, the chairman of the Joint Venture Investment Commission.

The delegation is expected to stay in China for six days until Saturday. Observers say that Jang could visit the key sites of China’s economic development and of the bilateral economic cooperation such as China’s three northeastern provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning.

He is also expected to meet top Chinese leaders such as President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jabao. Some speculate that Jang may seek to meet China’s top leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping or presumptive Premier Li Keqiang.

Jang may use his trip to explain to the Chinese leadership the cash-strapped country’s willingness for reform and openness, observers said. The North has made revisions to its seven regulations, forging better conditions for the operation of foreign enterprises and investors.

Coming ahead of China’s once-in-a-decade leadership handover slated for October, Jang’s trip has also triggered speculation that he could seek to arrange the bilateral summit talks, hoping to hold them this year or early next year.

“I think the summit talks could be held in around November after Xi Jinping takes office. Jang may be in China to make preparations needed for the summit arrangements,” said Hong Hyun-ik, senior researcher at the think tank Sejong Institute.

Whether to hold the summit could hinge on the result of Jang’s visit to China, experts said. To top it off, the arrangement of the summit may not be a decision China can make without any consideration of how Seoul and Washington would respond, they added.

“North Korea may be rushing to gain more economic cooperation from China. But the negotiations with Beijing will not be easy as China has so far gained nothing from exchanges with Pyongyang. It has rather lost much from the bilateral cooperation,” said Lee of Chung-Ang University.

“When China considers a call to accept the visit of Kim Jong-un, it would also need to coordinate with Seoul and Washington [given its economic ties and other relations with them].”

Some anticipate that Jang could ask China to make more efforts to move forward the sluggish projects of the two economic zones in the border regions of Hwanggeumpyeong and Rason.

The scale of Jang’s delegation and the diplomatic treatment given to him during his stay in China has drawn particular attention.

When Jang was sent to China on diplomatic missions in the past, he was accompanied by a few officials. But now scores of officials and Chinese security staff indicated his exalted status, observers said.

“As Kim is lacking in experience, Jang is doing it on his behalf. This kind of signals that there is no friction in their relationship, and that they maintain the close ties,” said Hong of Sejong Institute.


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