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Friday, May 27, 2011     GET REAL

Kim Jong-Il curries favor in China yet again,
but where’s the kid?

By Donald Kirk,

No doubt about it, the North Koreans are pulling out all the stops in a bid to convince both their closest ally and their worst enemy that, this time, they really want to be good.


Kim Jong-Il, left, has made his third trip in just over a year to the North's key ally and economic prop, visiting northeast and east China as well as Beijing, where he met President Hu Jintao and other officials.     AFP/CCTV
How else to explain the extraordinary coincidence of “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-Il wending his way through the high-tech zone of eastern and northeastern China, winding up in the embrace of President Hu Jintao, while United States human-rights envoy Robert King was in Pyongyang on a “fact-finding” mission?

In a latter-day version of the elaborate pilgrimages that Chosun Dynasty kings made regularly to kowtow before Chinese emperors, the Dear Leader absorbed the lessons of China’s economic boom in visits to high-tech sites before assuring Hu he wanted almost everything China wants.

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That would be a focus on “economic development” along with the resumption of the long-stalled six-party talks on the North’s nuclear program, the immediate reward for which would be the promise of a non-stop flow of food after one of the harshest winters in recent years.

As for the snow job the North Koreans are giving King, the whole point again is to convince the Americans of their goodwill and good faith as a prelude to resumption of food aid that the U.S. stopped giving in tandem with South Korea’s cut-off of food more than three years ago.

King, as the envoy on human-rights issues in North Korea, has got to be presenting his hosts with a raft of charges and claims, all of which the North Koreans are no doubt refuting as they’ve been doing for the benefit of everyone else who has been visiting the North for years.

Anxious to show they’re onto the North Koreans’ game, a few members of King’s entourage are staying on for several days after King leaves this weekend asking still more questions to which their hosts will have well-rehearsed answers.

Nobody suspects the North of harboring a secret desire either to abandon its nuclear weapons program or to open up the economy, but all the talking does have an upside. North Korea for now is in no mood to perpetrate more episodes such as those in the Yellow Sea last year in which 46 sailors died in the sinking of a South Korean navy vessel and another four were killed in an artillery barrage on an island several kilometers from the North Korean coast.

While soothsaying about North Korean planning is always extremely risky, it would seem unlikely that Kim Jong-Il is anxious to conduct a nuclear test on the order of the two underground explosions that shook the world in October 2006 and again in May 2009. Missile tests may be another matter, but this week’s visits go a long way to dispelling forecasts of any of those either. Not for now, anyway.

The most obvious reason for North Korea’s goodwill campaign, aside from the danger of starvation approaching the level of the mid-1990s, is the need to display the country as a success story in the run-up next year to the 100th anniversary on April 15 of the birth of Kim Jong-Il’s father, the long-ruling “Great Leader” Kim Il-Sung, who died in July 1994.

That celebration promises to be a blast that will outdo all the shows that North Korea has been putting on for weeks every year in May Day Stadium. It’s going to go on for months in Pyongyang and outlying provincial centers in an orgy of propaganda the likes of which no one has seen before.

To be sure of the success of this extravaganza, however, North Korea has to manage somehow to get back to talking to South Korea. That’s going to be difficult considering that conservative President Lee Myung-Bak has demanded that North Korea show signs of living up to previous deals for giving up its nukes — and then “apologize” for the sinking of the navy vessel, the Cheonan, as well as for the shelling of the border island.

North Korea clearly hopes to put Lee into a position in which he has to accept some face-saving formula for assenting to talks regardless of North Korea’s denials of anything to do with the Cheonan episode. The Americans persist in demanding North Korea first negotiate with South Korea as a prerequisite for six-party talks, much less any talks with the U.S., but the presence of the U.S. mission to North Korea shows Washington’s desire to find a way around the impasse.

Washington is saying nothing about the need for North Korea to issue apologies and may well resume aid of some kind to North Korea. In the end, Lee might have little choice but to drop his own objections and possibly resume South Korean aid — though maybe not to the order of 500,000 tons of food and fertilizer a year, as proffered annually during the decade of the “Sunshine” policy before he took office in 2008. Nor are China and Washington going to be the only sources of pressure on the South.

South Koreans go to the polls in December of next year to elect a new president to succeed Lee, restricted to a single five-year term under the country’s “democracy constitution” of 1987, and the ruling Grand National Party faces the likelihood of a strong liberal/leftist reaction.

Lee won by an overwhelming majority of votes in December 1997 over a liberal candidate who would have liked nothing better than to perpetuate the “Sunshine” policy of reconciliation propounded by his two predecessors, but his party now has to deal with a surge of sentiment for an era when North-South rapprochement was all the rage among wishful thinkers.

Kim Jong-Il’s China mission leaves open yet another leadership issue — that of succession in North Korea. When his train first crossed the border into China a week ago, his third son and heir presumptive, Kim Jong-Un, was reportedly on board — initial reports had Jong-Un as making the trip on his own to northeastern China.

It was not until some hours later that South Korean intelligence sources spread the word that the Dear Leader himself, not the son, was on the train, absorbing economic insights on his third mission to China in slightly more than a year. There was no word on whether the kid was along for the ride.

If Jong-Un was on board, his presence was a tightly guarded secret. No long-range camera lenses caught him getting on or off the train, and there was no hint of his whereabouts in the Chinese media. So what happened to early speculation that Kim Jong-Il would be using the trip to confirm the kid’s acceptance by wary Chinese leaders? Could it be that they did not want him around — that they are not so happy about him after all?

Those are questions to which there are no quick answers. Kim Jong-Il did seem in good health — largely recovered, to outward appearances, from the stroke that he reportedly suffered in August 2008. With any luck, he might be in shape to celebrate his old man’s birthday, with or without junior by his side.

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