BEIJING // Analysts are optimistic about the prospect of North Korea's return to stalled nuclear talks after the country's leader, Kim Jong-il, made a visit to China's capital this week. Mr Kim wrapped up his visit yesterday, meeting the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, for the second time on his trip and other top leaders, including the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, according to South Korean news outlets.
The North Korean leader was in Beijing on Wednesday, after inspecting two booming Chinese industrial cities, Dalian, and Tianjin, and attended a banquet that night, hosted by Mr Hu at the Great Hall of People, next to Tiananmen Square. The unusually long four-and-a-half-hour gala also likely included a meeting between Mr Kim and Mr Hu, South Korean analysts said. "It's a significant meeting in that Chinese top leaders engaged in a direct dialogue with North Korea's top leader," said Sun Zhe, a professor on international studies at China's Tsinghua University in Beijing. The question now, he said, is how soon will North Korea reopen talks?
Mr Kim's visit came at a time when China's highest decision-makers were all in the country. They form the Polituro Standing Commitee, which includes Mr Hu and the vice president, Xi Jinping. Crucial foreign relations decisions, such as North Korean issues, require the committee's consensus to move forward. "North Korea is likely to make a statement, much more forward-looking than it made previously, in rejoining the nuclear negotiation," said Yang Moo-jin of Seoul's University of North Korean Studies, who also expects a positive outcome.
Mr Kim's visit has been shrouded in secrecy. Yesterday was Mr Kim's fourth day in the country and the Chinese government had still not acknowledged his visit. The state-controlled media kept silent, even after Mr Kim's large convoy of 43 North Korean-flagged limousines, escorted by police, conspicuously drove through Beijing's touristy Changanjie boulevard. "We have no information," said Jiang Yu, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, during a regular press conference yesterday, basically repeating what she said on Tuesday about Mr Kim's visit.
China's popular Global Times, the international news arm of the official People's Daily, chose to be an exception. Yesterday it said Mr Kim "reportedly" arrived in Beijing, but attributed it to foreign news reports. Mr Kim's trip to China was slightly different this time. Although China did not officially acknowledge his presence in the country, the world knew where the North Korean leader was partly because of his own openness. He chose the luxurious Fulihua Hotel in the commercial district of downtown Dalian city for his first stopover and ventured outside of it three times, taking with him a convoy of about 40 vehicles - in contrast with his behaviour on earlier visits when he tried to avoid exposure.
Mr Yang in Seoul said the unusual visibility of Mr Kim in China was intentional and that the subtle yet choreographed visibility reveals China's confidence that Mr Kim's visit would yield a positive outcome on the nuclear negotiation front. South Korean media bemoaned China's red carpet treatment for Mr Kim, adding that Beijing paid for Mr Kim's entire stay. The visit also came at a sensitive time when investigations are still under way for the sinking a South Korean navy warship that killed 46 sailors. North Korea remains a prime suspect, though it denies involvement.
Officials in Seoul have said they will not take part in the six-party nuclear talks with North Korea until they determine the cause for the sinking of the warship. Now, with Mr Kim's China visit, South Korea is worried that the other parties to the nuclear talks, including its ally the US, will engage Pyongyang and move forward on the talks, leaving South Korea behind. Still, internationally China's economic support for North Korea has been drawing strong complaints.
John Park, a senior fellow at the US Institute of Peace who focuses on North East Asian security, said China's shoring up of North Korea's economy and Mr Kim's regime is a way to manage its neighbour. "I think the Chinese thinking goes that it is much more prudent to deal with a known quantity that is very difficult, than to deal with uncertainty." Andrei Lankov, a Russia-born expert on North Korea who teaches at Seoul's Kookmin University, said one of the reasons China still "tries to keep North Korea afloat" economically is its fear of an influx of refugees in case of the country's collapse.
He added that China will continue to give economic aid to North Korea in exchange for "a few meaningless declarations" about its willingness to denuclearise. Chinese analysts, however, believe it is actually the US that holds the key to the nuclear issue. "China is a middleman. China plays a key role," said Mr Sun at Tsinghua University. "But the most important player is the United States. North Korea always wants a direct dialogue with the US."