North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is visiting China again, accompanied by his top economic officials. It is the reclusive and ailing leader’s third visit to China in a short span of one year, with the previous two visits made in May and August last year.
Kim’s frequent visits to China indicate Pyongyang has made little progress in tackling its deepening economic, political and social problems. The pariah regime has been isolated from the international community since 2009 as the United Nations imposed sanctions for its nuclear and missile tests.
Furthermore, Seoul and Washington cut off economic and food aid to the North after it torpedoed the South’s Cheonan corvette in March last year, killing 46 sailors on board.
To overcome isolation, the North has dramatically increased economic cooperation with China, its only ally in the world. Yet economic cooperation with China alone is not enough to ease the North’s chronic economic problems. The impoverished state needs to rebuild the economy from the ground up. But China is not in a position to do it. All it can do is to provide a small amount of assistance to the needy neighbor each time its frail leader visits asking for help.
For Kim, the need to secure economic aid from China has become all the greater as the process of transferring his power to his youngest son has been not as smooth as he expected. He needs rice and other essential commodities to win support for his inexperienced and unpopular heir from the increasingly restless public.
Furthermore, Kim has less than a year left to fulfill his promise to make North Korea a “strong and prosperous” nation by the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth, which falls on April 15 next year. As things stand, it appears difficult for Kim to even maintain his fragile regime by then, let alone make it a prosperous nation.
In this regard, securing economic aid from China is the most urgent task for Kim. Therefore, he must have put it at the top of his agenda for talks with Chinese leaders. But nothing is for free. To curry favor with the leaders in Beijing, he might have told them what they wanted to hear ― a willingness to resume the stalled six-party talks.
To restart the multilateral talks, Seoul has proposed a three-stage formula ― inter-Korean talks, Pyongyang-Washington talks, then six-party talks. Washington, Beijing and Tokyo have all agreed to push this proposal and, according to Chinese officials, Pyongyang has also responded positively to it.
But the North has yet to respond to Seoul’s call for inter-Korean talks, which was made in January.
Given the growing regime instability in the North, Kim has little to gain by delaying Seoul’s offer for talks. But to restart inter-Korean dialogue, the North must apologize for the atrocities it committed against the South last year. An apology costs nothing for the North. But the reward it can get from the South will be much more than the economic aid it is seeking from China.