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Kim's China sojourn

Mainichi Shimbun, Sunday 4 June 2000

It was recently learned that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il secretly visited Beijing and met with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, National People's Congress Chairman Li Peng and Premier Zhu Rongji.

A historic summit between the two Koreas is slated for June 12 in Pyongyang. South Korean President Kim Dae-jung will enter the meeting strengthened by his close ties with Washington and Tokyo. Kim Jong Il no doubt wanted to secure similar backing from Beijing to balance the talks.

This was the North Korean leader's first visit abroad since taking over following the death of his father, Kim Il Sung, in 1994. The reclusive leader rarely appears in public even in his own country, and few people have ever heard him speak. This has reinforced Pyongyang's image as a Hermit Kingdom.

We must wait and see to learn whether Kim's first foray onto the stage of international diplomacy signals further changes in the reclusive nation.

The recent visit was meant to remain a secret, but the gist of the meeting was conveyed to South Korea's ambassador to China, Kwon Byong-hyon, at the Chinese Foreign Ministry. This, in the light of diplomatic protocol, was no doubt done with North Korea's consent and demonstrated China's desire to maintain close ties with Seoul.

One of the big hurdles to the realization of a North-South summit was the number of media personnel who would be allowed to cover the historic meeting. Pyongyang is still very much tucked behind a veil of secrecy, but if Kim Jong Il takes this opportunity to visit other nations as well and to open himself up to foreign reporters, there is a possibility that the nature of his reclusive reign may change.

The visit to China was not altogether unexpected. Last year, Kim Yong Nam, president of the North Korean Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly - the country's No. 2 leader - traveled to China. Normally, one would have expected Li Peng, China's second-highest- ranking official as chairman of the National People's Congress, to return the visit. This never materialized, and instead the North Korean leader himself traveled to Beijing.

Kim may be hoping to invite Jiang Zemin to a party congress that is expected to be held in the fall. He appears to have been prompted into taking the initiative after Beijing's announcement that it would recognize South Korea. For a period following this decision, relations between Pyongyang and Beijing were strained.

An attempt to improve relations with China, moreover, can also be seen as a first step to making diplomatic overtures toward South Korea, the United States and Japan.

Beginning last fall, Pyongyang established diplomatic ties with Italy and Australia. And this summer, it is expected to participate for the first time in the Asian Regional Forum of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. While such enhanced contact with the international community is welcome, some have expressed doubt over its willingness to become a full member as long as Kim Jong Il remains in charge.

The biggest priority for North Korea on the foreign policy front is to normalize relations with Washington and Tokyo. Talks with both governments have become bogged down of late. Were North Korean leaders to become more visible on the global scene, though, new progress in such negotiations may become possible.