By Kang Hyun-kyung
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s latest visit to China and alleged summit with Chinese President Hu Jintao has drawn keen attention from both Seoul and Washington.
Experts warn that deepening economic ties between North Korea and China are likely to undercut the impact of the U.S. government’s forthcoming country-specific sanctions against the North.
Chinese investments will buffer the North from the possible economic shock and therefore Pyongyang will feel less pain than Washington had intended even after additional pressure is imposed, they added.
Kim embarked on a surprise trip to China last Thursday, just three months after his last visit to his country’s closest ally.
Kim’s jaunt, which coincided with a visit by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter to North Korea to free an American imprisoned for illegally entering the communist state, prompted intense speculation over his motives.
Earlier, local media reported the China trip may have something to do with the grooming of his third son, Jong-un, as a successor.
His itinerary included a primary school where the elder Kim’s father and North Korea founder Kim Il-sung attended and other locations where Korean independence fighters during the Japanese colonial period were buried supported the assumption.
Some media reported that Jong-un accompanied his father.
But Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute, questioned this. The North Korea watcher noted that given the Workers’ Party meeting scheduled for September, it would be more reasonable for the younger Kim to stay at home to organize the major event.
Later, there was a slight change in the media’s tone and interpretation of Kim’s primary motive for the China visit after it was alleged the North Korean leader held a summit with President Hu.
Experts say the two leaders might have reached a deal to boost trade and economic cooperation. They reason the hostile circumstances facing the North forced Kim to make the trip.
North Korea has been under tightened sanctions since it test-fired several missiles and conducted a second nuclear test last year. Sources of hard currency dried up due to the increasing pressure.
On top of this, a torrent of floods ripped through the North, making the situation there even worse than before.
Kim’s trip came days before the U.S. government was scheduled to announce a set of tailored sanctions against the communist state.
Sources say Washington will unveil the details of fresh sanctions early this week.
Under the new measures, the U.S. government aims to target North Korean firms and individuals involved in illicit financial transactions or activities that have contributed to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
If China pledged more investment and economic aid to prevent possible instability on the Korean Peninsula, the U.S. effort to make the North suffer and give up its nuclear ambitions will be negatively affected.
North Korea’s bilateral trade with China accounted for approximately 50 percent of its entire trade in 2008. The figure could have soared after the sinking of the Cheonan because South Korea severed trade ties with the North.
About 76 percent of the bilateral trade was concentrated in the three northeastern provinces near the border where about two million ethnic Koreans reside.
Choi Seong-keun, a senior research fellow at the Hyundai Economic Research Institute, said both China and North Korea have reaped gains through more bilateral trade there.