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Communist allies seek strategic interests

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s recent visit to China indicated that the two countries’ communist alliance remains intact, but that it may be shifting toward a relationship based more on strategic and economic interests.

The varying tones of state-run media reports from Pyongyang and Beijing on Kim’s summit meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao last week suggested that the two allies may not be on the same page on many things.

The North’s Korean Central News Agency reported last week that Kim and Hu “reaffirmed their goal of denuclearizing the entire Korean Peninsula and urged peaceful solutions through dialogue such as the reopening of the six-party talks while accepting that eliminating obstacles coincides with the benefit of Northeast Asia.”

The KCNA went on to stress the historical alliance, adding that Hu said his administration “will take historical responsibility for handing faithfully down the baton of the traditional China-Chosun (North Korea) friendship, the precious spirit of the revolutionaries of the old generations of both countries.”

“The highest leaders on both sides agreed on the stance that passing down, affirming and developing Chosun-China friendly relations, which have risen to a higher level, is both a common and a priceless obligation which cannot be achieved by anyone else,” Hu was quoted as saying by the KCNA as Kim Jong-il prepares for a third-generation succession to his son Jong-un.

Although it is Beijing’s principle not to interfere in another country’s internal affairs, many members of the Chinese power elite “despise” the North’s planned hereditary succession, according to a U.S. scholar.

“From what I have heard from several Chinese officials, the Chinese despise the North’s planned third-generation succession to Kim Jong-un,” William Overholt, senior research fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, said.

A senior Cheong Wa Dae official also said China’s next leader Xi Jinping is unlikely to be personally supportive of the dynastical succession to 27-year-old Jong-un.

Meanwhile, reporting on the meeting on the same day, China’s Xinhua News Agency cited Kim Jong-il as saying, “I hope for the relaxation of tensions and will stick to the goal of Korean Peninsula denuclearization, and call for the earliest reopening of the six-party talks.”

“China has been striving to reopen the six-party talks, to achieve Korean Peninsula peace and security,” Xinhua cited Kim, in an apparent bid to emphasize that Beijing has been doing its best to reopen the multilateral nuclear talks.

“Chosun (North Korea) is concentrating now on economic construction, and needs exceedingly secure surroundings,” Kim said, according to Xinhua.

China has been urging the North to follow its model of economic reforms and market opening as it seeks to invest in infrastructure construction and development of natural resources in the underdeveloped North.

Kim Jong-il is unlikely to move toward opening up the country, however, as his regime is more keen on seeking stability ahead of an unwelcomed third-generation succession to his son, according to observers here including Yu Ho-yeol, professor of North Korean studies at Korea University.

“The North may be willing to forge economic cooperation with China in certain border areas such as Hwanggeumpyong and Rajin-Sonbong, and partially open up to China, but I don’t think Kim will consider a major economic reform like China,” Yu said.

A number of economic cooperation projects appear ready to take shape between North Korea and China.

A businessman here claimed the North and China have signed a more concrete agreement last year following up on a 2005 preliminary deal to jointly develop an offshore oil field.

“The North has agreed with China to jointly develop an offshore oil field in the waters off Nampo,” a western coastal town, said Kim Young-il, chief executive of a South Korean trading firm and inter-Korean trade adviser to the Korea International Trade Association.

“The North Korea-China agreement on joint development of the oil field seems to have taken place last year.”

It is estimated that some 20 billion tons of crude oil is buried under the Bohai Gulf continental shelf which stretches across the Korea Bay between the North Pyongan Province and China’s Liaoning Province, Kim said during a policy debate session hosted by a legislator.

“The joint exploration would be economically viable because, once about a third of the oil reserve can be extracted, they can extract between 7 and 8 billion tons, enough to meet China’s entire demand for nearly 30 years,” Kim said.

China consumes about 250 million tons of crude oil per year.

To offset the suspension of cash flow from South Korea, the North is focusing on exports of natural resources such as iron and coal to China, Kim added.

By Kim So-hyun (