Analysis: North Korea’s "family firm" sidles up to China

By Chris Buckley

BEIJING (BestGrowthStock) – Think of North Korea’s Kim Jong-il as the autocratic, ailing boss of a family firm — sanctioned, cash-strapped, and worried about who will take over — and his weekend tour to woo main backer China makes sense.

Kim’s visit to China was, as usual, cloaked in secrecy until it ended on Monday. But even the opaque official reports made clear enough that the shuffling 68-year-old leader wanted to reassure China, whose economic help and diplomatic muscle he needs as much as ever to support a dynastic succession.

The reclusive leader told President Hu Jintao he was willing to return to nuclear disarmament talks — which China wants — and praised China’s economic success. In return, Hu welcomed Kim’s position on the nuclear talks and nudged him on economic reform.

“Economic development should be self-reliant and also cannot be separated from opening up and cooperation,” Hu told Kim, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

“That is an essential route for keeping with the tide of the times and accelerating national development.”

But don’t expect any dramatic steps from Kim.

Like a defiant company boss seeking help, he needs China but bristles at being a supplicant to the much richer neighbor, said John Park of the United States Institute of Peace in Washington.

“It’s like a government credit agency talking to a bailed out company that by all measures would otherwise be bankrupt,” the former banker said.

“Kim Jong-il needs the Chinese, because there’s no other party out there … But at the same time, if Kim is seen more and more as China’s man in Pyongyang that puts a huge bull’s eye on him.”

That tension is at the core of their relationship.


But even if the two do want to resurrect the long-stalled nuclear talks, others are less keen, as emphasized by the Obama administration’s new sanctions on Pyongyang this week.

Washington and its allies want North Korea to do more than just talk before they will go back to nuclear disarmament negotiations.

Anyway, Kim for the moment is preoccupied by a congress in September that analysts believe will pave the way for his youngest son — who reportedly accompanied him on the China trip — to emerge as the successor running the impoverished country, with its 24 million citizens and stockpile of nuclear bombs.

“North Korea is hard-up now and has been hoping for more aid, and especially now he probably wants more food to ensure a good atmosphere for the congress,” said Zhang Liangui, an expert on North Korea at the Central Party School, an institute in Beijing.

“But North Korea’s words and actions can differ,” Zhang also said. “It might well be these words (of Kim: ) are more a tactical expediency than a real breakthrough.”


In May, Kim abruptly ended his previous visit to China, apparently unhappy that his demands for support were not met, said Shi Yinhong, a professor of International Security at Renmin University in Beijing.

“To some extent, this latest visit was coming back kow-towing to China for support now that he’s in even deeper need and needs a tolerable environment for the congress,” said Shi.

“I’d guess he made more reasonable demands this time, and China is worried about North Korea’s stability, so the two sides saw eye to eye at least for now.”

Hu gently pressed Kim to learn more from Beijing’s reforms, and Kim said he was “deeply astonished” by the example of northeast China, where he was for his five-day stay.

If Kim’s record offers any clues, however, he is likely to seek greater distance from China and its expectations if the North’s isolation eases, possibly through fresh nuclear disarmament talks, said Shi, the Beijing professor.

“If Kim’s days get better, he won’t be so malleable,” said Shi.

(Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)

Analysis: North Korea’s "family firm" sidles up to China