Kim Jong Il goes to China-Slow train from Pyongyang
THE timing could hardly have been more conspicuous. After weeks of speculation, early on Monday May 3rd Kim Jong Il, the not-so-endearing Dear Leader of North Korea, arrived in China by armoured train (he prefers not to fly). The trip, his first in more than four years, comes at a time of high tension on the Korean peninsula. The sinking of a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, in disputed waters in March is widely suspected to have been the result of a North Korean attack. After laying to rest the 46 sailors who perished, in a solemn ceremony on April 29th, South Korea’s president, Lee Myung-bak, wasted no time in flying to meet his Chinese counterpart the following day on the sidelines of the Shanghai World Expo.he It must be galling for Mr Kim to trundle along behind him.
It is little surprise that both Koreas are courting China. As North Korea’s staunchest ally, China is probably the only country that can rein in the worst of its troublemaking. China is also the host of the stalled six-party talks that are aimed at ridding the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons.
North Korea has been stalling those negotiations by setting preconditions—such as the lifting of sanctions and the signing of a peace treaty—that America will not abide. It has become an old routine. The North holds out for further sweeteners, only to skitter away once the survival of its repressive regime is assured. Reflecting back on the seven years of six-way talking, one South Korean diplomat describes North Korea as having been spoiled by South Korean and Chinese indulgence.
Spoiled it may be, but North Korea is indulged no longer. South Korean benevolence ended in 2008 with the election of Mr Lee, who favours a hardline policy. The UN Security Council tightened its sanctions after North Korea conducted its second nuclear test last May, which has left the regime increasingly isolated and strapped for cash. North Korea's economic woes have worsened dramatically following a botched redenomination of its currency on November 30th and the interception of some of its remunerative arms shipments. Even humanitarian aid is drying up, according to the World Food Programme. North Korea’s renewed efforts to lure foreign investment to the “special city” of Rajin-Sonbong—and the frequent tantrums in which it demands that the South resume sending tourists to its resort at Mount Kumgang—speak volumes about its strained finances.
The depletion of sympathy from abroad has left North Korea more dependent on China than ever before. Analysts believe that North Korea relies on China for 90% of its energy imports and 80% of its consumer goods. With the Dear Leader paying a call to Beijing, undoubtedly to extract yet more economic and diplomatic support, the time is ripe to exert some leverage.
Yet China’s priorities are not clear. It has imposed sanctions on North Korea twice in the past, but only in response to red-handed rule-breaking, and even then its punishments were watered-down. When it comes to the Korean peninsula, China appears to rank stability even more highly than getting rid of nukes. While the South is preoccupied with finding the culprit that sank its ship, America needs to convince China that nuclear weapons in the hands of its unruly neighbour are incompatible with long-term stability.