POSTED: 4:38 a.m. HST, May 26, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 4:38 a.m. HST, May 26, 2011
BEIJING >> North Korea's supreme leader Kim Jong Il won fresh expressions of support from China's president on a visit to his most important ally that came as his regime struggles to feed its impoverished population and stabilize a collapsing economy.
Such backing is crucial for a regime in the throes of an economic crisis and facing increasing isolation, with most contacts with former benefactors South Korea and the United States frozen.
Kim, for his part, told his hosts that he wanted to resume the nuclear disarmament talks that China hosts, according to China's official Xinhua News Agency. Beijing is also pushing for a resumption of the negotiations, but South Korea and the United States say the North must first exhibit sincerity toward disarmament.
China is North Korea's most vital diplomatic and economic supporter and is determined to shore up the isolated hard-line communist regime and forestall a collapse that could unleash political chaos and send waves of refugees across its border. Its economy in ruins, North Korea is again struggling to feed its people following flooding last summer and a bitter winter. Kim's trip comes as a U.S. delegation visits North Korea to assess its food needs.
"North Korea's internal situation is rather difficult. He hoped to further strengthen China and North Korea's economic cooperation and obtain aid from China," said Zhang Liangui, a Korea expert at the ruling Communist Party's official training academy in Beijing.
The confirmation of the visit by Chinese and North Korean state media was a clear indication that it had ended since neither Beijing nor Pyongyang report Kim's visits until after he returns to North Korea.
Since Friday, there had been speculation, confirmed independently by video images of Kim at a hotel, that he was on a secretive visit to appeal for food aid and study the economic reforms behind China's meteoric economic rise. Premier Wen Jiabao also took the unusual step of telling South Korea's prime minister that Beijing had invited Kim to China, even while the Foreign Ministry and state media kept mum.
The flood of official media reports on Thursday underscored the lengths China undertook to honor the North Korean leader. State television showed a vigorous looking Kim in his trademark pea green leisure suit and Hu in a blue business suit embracing each other with a three-cheek kiss and attending a banquet with most of the Chinese Politburo Standing Committee, a rare honor.
The reports said Kim met with President Hu Jintao, Wen and other leading officials ahead of the banquet at the Great Hall of the People, the seat of the legislature in the heart of Beijing.
No mention was made of whether the 69-year-old Kim's son and heir-apparent, Kim Jong Un, was on the trip, although the reports said both Hu and Kim emphasized the need to maintain close ties through coming generations of leaders. Kim, 69, anointed his third son as successor following a long stretch of poor health.
Xinhua's report said Hu proposed at their Thursday meeting that the countries make "more efforts to share experiences on party building and state governance and promote economic and social development."
Hu also urged that they increase communication and coordination on major international issues and "jointly safeguard regional peace and stability" — a likely reference to the international standoff over North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile programs.
And in a dollop of flattery defying the miserable state in which most North Koreans live, Hu was quoted by Xinhua as saying China was glad that North Korea is giving "top priority to improving people's lives."
North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency carried a similar report to the Chinese ones, calling the visit "unofficial." It provided a lengthy list of North Korean officials who accompanied Kim.
The highly ritualized nature of the summit was emblematic of the unique relationship between the two communist allies, forged when China sent troops to save the regime founded by Kim's father, Kim Il Sung, as it faced defeat in the 1950-53 Korean War.
Kim generally avoids foreign travel, but his third trip to China in just over a year shows how much he relies on his neighbor.
China's backing has grown even more important to North Korea since South Korea's conservative government halted unconditional food and fertilizer shipments in early 2008 and suspended almost all trade with the North. Pyongyang is also hobbled by sanctions from the U.S. and the U.N. designed to punish the country for violating nuclear agreements.
But while Beijing is pushing North Korea to reform its moribund economy, previous halfhearted attempts have been abandoned by Pyongyang and it's unclear how far Kim — or his son — are willing to go.
Earlier in his visit, Kim — who is said to fear flying — traveled by special armored train to the northeastern cities of Mudanjiang and Changchun, as well as Yangzhou and Nanjing in the economically thriving eastern province of Jiangsu.
Associated Press writer Gillian Wong contributed to this report.