BEIJING>> China and North Korea have broken ground on the initial stages of a pair of joint economic development zones that appear to reflect minor progress in Beijing’s push to persuade Pyongyang to reform its moribund economy.
China’s Commerce Ministry said ceremonies marking the start of the projects took place during consultations from Tuesday to Thursday held in northeastern China.
Few details have been given about plans for the zones, one of which is on islands in the Yalu River near the Chinese city Dandong, the other near China’s Yanbian county to the northeast where a road is also being built to help move Chinese goods to the Sea of Japan.
The move follows North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s visit last month during which China pressed him to adopt changes to revitalize North Korean industry and agriculture. Pyongyang abandoned its previous halfhearted attempts and it’s unclear how far Kim is willing to go now.
The sides agreed the economic zones should be developed along the principles of "government-guided, enterprise-based and market-oriented," the Commerce Ministry said in a news release reviewing the talks, which were led by Chinese Commerce Minister Chen Deming and Jang Song Thaek, a top official in the ruling Korean Workers’ Party who is Kim’s brother-in-law.
The statement did not say when or where the ground-breaking ceremonies were held, although South Korea’s Yonhap News agency said one was Wednesday on Hwanggumphyong and Wihwa islands, which form the western zone on the Yalu River separating the two near Dandong.
Jang and Chen attended, along with hundreds of others, while brass bands played, doves were released and giant baloons floated above the proceedings emblazoned with the words "North Korea-China friendship and joint development," Yonhap said.
China is North Korea’s most crucial 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.
North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency echoed the Chinese statement, saying the sides "agreed to build the two economic zones into a model of … economic and trade cooperation and a theatre of developing the economic and trade cooperation with other countries."
The North’s last attempt at establishing economic development zones along the Chinese border was abandoned after China arrested the Dutch-Chinese businessman, Yang Bin, behind the project.
China’s Foreign Ministry referred questions on the economic zones to the Commerce Ministry.
However, South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Byung-jae said Seoul hoped such deals would help bring progress on other fronts, especially multinational efforts to convince the North to abandon its nuclear programs and adopt a less confrontational approach toward its neighbors.
"We think it’s desirable for this kind of economic cooperation between China and North Korea to proceed," Cho said.
Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.