(Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong-il first went to China as a child for safety during the Korean War. He may soon be heading back for a trip seeking to shore up the support that keeps his destitute and derelict state alive.
China | North Korea
The North has a long, deep and troubled relationship with China that some experts liken to a marriage of convenience, where both parties must endure the pain of being together because they would be worse off apart.
“China’s food and energy assistance can be seen as an insurance premium that Beijing remits regularly to avoid paying the higher economic, political and national security cost of a North Korean collapse, a war on the peninsula, or subsuming of the North into the South,” the U.S. Congressional Research Service said in a report earlier this year.
Kim’s expected trip will likely lead to a return to stalled international talks hosted by Beijing on ending Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, analysts said, while he will try to win sweeteners from China for heading back to the table.
Kim may also be taking his youngest son Jong-un, the likely heir to the family dynasty that has ruled the North for more than 60 years, to introduce him to Beijing’s leaders and win their understanding for his succession plans, they said.
TWO ROADS DIVERGED
North Korea and China began an alliance as Leninist-socialist brothers that was forged in blood when they fought together during the 1950-53 Korean War and strengthened by numerous visits Kim made to learn from Beijing’s leaders while he being groomed to take over the state founded by his father Kim Il-sung.
For Kim Jong-il, China also represents the road not taken in economic reforms. For decades, China’s leaders had encouraged the two Kims to open up their economy and form their own brand of socialism that had room for markets.
“Kim has become very interested in the China model for development and expressed admiration for it but we have seen that North Korea’s leaders are not willing to take the course that China has taken,” said Peter Beck a researcher at Stanford University who is a specialist in Korean affairs.
The rift over economic openness began in the 1980s and led Kim Jong-il and the North’s media to question whether China was betraying socialist ideals.
In 1992, when an emerging China forged formal diplomatic ties with a surging South Korea, the North lashed and against “the unfaithful actions of some traitors of the revolution.”
North Korea’s economy, meanwhile, turned into a basket case following the collapse of the Soviet Union, its main benefactor.
But Kim has painted himself into a corner. Any economic reforms would open his isolated state to the outside world and could undermine his “military first” ideology, which justifies economic hardships at home to build an military strong enough to prevent foreign invaders from attacking.
“They made a critical decision that the market was a threat to the regime and not an opportunity. That is a source of frustration for China that North Korea has not been able to break free of the ideology that they left behind,” Beck said.
Late last year, Kim attacked a burgeoning merchant class with a currency revaluation designed to knock out their cash holdings. It also banned their foreign exchange transactions and set up state institutions to take over their private business.
The moves led to rare civil unrest and raised questions about the stability of the Kim regime.
“There should be no doubt that the North Korean economy has basically collapsed,” said Zhu Feng, a Peking University international studies professor, at a seminar in Seoul last week.
“The big question is whether increasing economic hardship will cause social unrest and political disorder.”
STABILITY ON THE BORDER
China supports Kim because it is worried what could happen if Kim family rule collapses, which could brings chaos to its 1,416-km (880 miles) border and a flood of refugees.
It is also worried about the South taking over the North and bringing its U.S. military ally to the Chinese border.
Kim will likely try to seek Chinese investment during his trip. Beijing may be willing to help, seeing it as money spent to buy stability for its border provinces, experts said.
In 2009, bilateral trade between China and North Korea, with an estimated GDP of $17 billion, was worth $2.7 billion. As the North’s economy has grown weaker since Kim took over power in 1994, China has supplied more food, oil and goods that serve as a lifeline for his broken state.
Kim, knowing that he will receive aid even if he defies his neighbor, has not bent to many of China’s wishes, particularly to end his boycott of six-country nuclear disarmament talks.
“However unpredictable and annoying the North Korean government may be to Beijing, any conceivable scenario other than maintaining the status quo could seriously damage China’s interests,” the Congressional Research Service report said.
(Additional reporting by Christine Kim in Seoul and Chris Buckley in Beijing; Editing by Alex Richardson)