By Kim Young-jin
As reports surfaced Thursday that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il had secretly departed for China, experts here commented that he likely intends to secure support for an upcoming power handoff in exchange for the resumption of international denuclearization talks.
Kim is also expected to try to secure aid for his impoverished country, which is reeling from international sanctions and devastating floods.
If confirmed it would be the first time for the reclusive leader to make two visits in one year to China, the reclusive North’s sole major ally and its main provider of food, arms and fuel.
Kim Jong-un, the regime’s presumed heir apparent, was rumored to be accompanying his 68-year-old father on the trip.
Analysts say he could be designated as the successor in a meeting of party representatives early next month ― a move they believe is on the fast track due to the deteriorating health of Kim, who reportedly suffered a stroke in 2008.
“The main purpose of the trip seems to be for Kim to persuade Chinese leadership about the legitimacy of the succession process,” Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Korea University, told The Korea Times. “I expect that China will guarantee its support for the power handoff in return for the North agreeing to return to denuclearization talks, on genuine terms, and refrain from provocative behavior.”
The talks, stalled since last year when the North walked away over UN sanctions for its missile and nuclear tests, were thrown into further limbo in March, when a South Korean vessel sank in waters near the inter-Korean maritime border.
Seoul and its allies blamed the incident on a North Korean torpedo attack, causing tensions between the Koreas, still technically at war, to spike.
China, seeking stability in economically vibrant Northeast Asia, has called for a resumption of the talks as a measure to ease the tensions.
On Thursday, Beijing's top nuclear envoy, Wu Dawei, was set to arrive in South Korea after having visited Pyongyang last week to meet with his counterpart, where a “full consensus” was reportedly struck on matters of mutual concern.
Experts also agree that Kim will likely try to secure significant economic aid as the North is reportedly struggling under sanctions and from floods caused by the torrential rains that have pounded both countries this summer.
Dr. Park Young-ho, senior fellow of the government-affiliated Korea Institute of National Unification (KINU), said the country will also need money for its bid to ensure a smooth power transition.
“The regime may want to hold a large-scale event to show Jong-un’s leadership to North Koreans,” he said. “They will need economic assistance in order to do that.”
Neither Pyongyang nor Beijing have confirmed the trip, in line with their procedure of waiting to announce a Kim visit until afterwards.
Unlike the last visit, which had been rumored for months, the reports Thursday came as a shock as international attention was focused on former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s visit to Pyongyang on a private mission to secure the release of an American man imprisoned there for illegal entry.
Aijalon Mahli Gomes, 30, was sentenced to eight years of hard labor for entering the country in January for unclear reasons.
It also remains unclear whether Carter, who arrived in the North Wednesday, had met with Kim before the North Korean leader left for China.
It has also been speculated that the visit may be a good sign for the four South Koreans and three Chinese fishermen detained in the North after allegedly breaching its waters.