(CNSNews.com) – A rare trip by Kim Jong-il beyond North Korea’s borders has stoked speculation in the region that Pyongyang’s remaining ally, China, will pressure him to return to multilateral nuclear talks, possibly in return for economic assistance.
Kim’s last visit to China, in January 2006, brought similar hopes, as the “six-party” nuclear talks were stalled then, as they are again now. Instead, Kim refused to return to the negotiating table for most of that year, staged a series of missile tests in the summer and in the fall carried out North Korea’s first nuclear weapons test.
China, which has been the Stalinist regime’s political ally and key trading partner since it sided with the North against the U.S.- and U.N.-backed South in the Korean War 60 years ago, has chaired the six-party talks since they were first launched in 2003 in a bid to resolve the crisis over Kim’s nuclear weapons programs.
For seven years the U.S. and the other participants – South Korea, Japan and Russia – have looked to Beijing to use its influence with Pyongyang to encourage it to negotiate, but the talks have been stalled more often than not, and the parties have not met under the mechanism since the end of 2008.
A year ago, after criticism from the United Nations over a rocket launch which the U.S. said was a long-range ballistic missile test, North Korea vowed it would “never” return to the talks. The following month it carried out a second nuclear weapons test, aggravating the diplomatic crisis.
Nonetheless in March, China’s lead envoy to the talks, Wu Dawei, voiced optimism that they would resume before the middle of this year, citing diplomatic contacts with Pyongyang.
If anything, however, the regional climate has worsened since then, particularly as a result of the unexplained sinking later that month of a South Korean navy ship, the Cheonan, near the disputed North-South maritime border.
The North is strongly suspected of being behind the tragedy, which cost the lives of 46 sailors, although it has denied responsibility. On Tuesday, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak met with top military officers and said in nationally televised comments that his country would take “stern action” against whoever was found to be responsible for the destruction of the ship, saying it had been no “simple accident.”
As is customary in their secretive relationship, neither North Korea nor China formally announced Kim’s visit this week, but the North Korean leader was photographed Monday at a hotel in Dalian, a port city in northeastern China, after reportedly arriving in the country earlier in the day on an armored personal train, his preferred method of travel.
Sources in China, cited in South Korean media, said Kim would likely travel Tuesday on to the capital, where he would hold talks with top Chinese leaders. Kim, who previously visited China in 2000, 2001, 2004 and 2006, reportedly suffered a stroke in 2008.
Official Chinese media outlets did carry reports on the “rumored” or “reported” visit, most of which cited foreign media accounts. The reports said government confirmation had been unavailable Monday, a national holiday in China.
In its report, the Global Times, a paper linked to the Communist Party’s People’s Daily, quoted a Chinese expert on North Korea as saying bilateral ties had suffered as a result of North Korea’s two nuclear tests but had improved again since.
Global Times said the visit could breathe new life into the six-party talks, recalling that shortly after one of his earlier visits to China, in May 2000, Kim had held a historic summit in Pyongyang with then South Korean President Kim Dae-jung.
The state-run China Daily cited Chinese scholars as saying Beijing would “actively urge” North Korea to return to the talks, but that Pyongyang’s conditions for doing so would not likely be met.
In return for agreeing to hold more talks, North Korea has demanded an end to U.N. sanctions and a formal peace treaty with the United States.
The Korean War ended in 1953 with a truce, not a peace agreement. Kim has long been pushing for a peace treaty, although at nuclear talks in 2005 the sides agreed that negotiations on “a permanent peace regime on the Korean peninsula” should take place in an appropriate forum separate from the six-party talks.
Pyongyang’s other demands over the years of six-party discussions have included fuel aid and other economic assistance, diplomatic ties with Washington, removal from the U.S. list of terror-sponsoring states – a concession it won in 2008 – and a withdrawal of all U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula.
In South Korea, some observers voiced skepticism that the visit to China would accomplish much.
“Some say China has not successfully played its role of host for the six-party talks to deter North Korea’s nuclear ambition,” Seoul’s JoongAng Ilbo newspaper said in an editorial. “By sticking to its special relationship with the North, China acquiesced to or rather aided the North’s effort to develop nuclear weapons.”
“Wild speculation” about what the visit would achieve was pointless, said Lee Ha-won, correspondent for the conservative daily, Chosun Ilbo.
”Of course Kim’s moves are important. But nothing substantial changed in North Korea following any of his previous visits,” he wrote.
Even if Kim agreed during a visit to China to return to the six-party talks, “it would be rash to regard that as a major turning point,” Lee said. “A resumption of the six-party talks, unless the North really decides to give up its nuclear weapons, would be meaningless.”
Anger over the i>Cheonan sinking is running deep in South Korea, and the chairman of the ruling conservative Grand National Party, Chung Mong-joon, was quoted as telling party leaders that it was worrying China was welcoming Kim now, given the suspicions of North Korean involvement.
JoongAng Ilbo said Chinese leaders should confront Kim over the Cheonan incident.
“Of course, Kim will deny any involvement. However, China should at least state clearly that it can’t stand aloof if North Korea is proven to be the culprit,” it said. “That’s an attitude befitting a great power.”
Kim’s visit to China comes at a time when nuclear issues are at the center of the international community’s agenda, with the U.N. opening a month-long conference reviewing the progress of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
North Korea is the one NPT signatory to have withdrawn from the treaty. It did so in 2003, several months after State Department officials confronted the North Koreans with evidence that they had been violating an earlier nuclear disarmament agreement for years.
The U.S. officials said North Korea admitted to having the clandestine program, although Pyongyang denied making the admission. Through the six-party talks launched in the summer of 2003 the participating countries have been trying to resolve the dispute ever since.