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2009/01/29 14:32 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 39 (January 29, 2009)

   *** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

Kim Jong-il's Meeting with Chinese Diplomat Is Message to the World

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-il met with a senior Chinese Communist Party official last week in his first appearance with a foreign guest since a reported stroke last summer. But analysts in Seoul see added significance between the lines.

   During the Jan. 23 meeting in Pyongyang, Kim said he does not want to raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula and hopes to work closely with China to advance the six-way talks on its denuclearization.

   China's Xinhua news agency quoted Kim as saying, "The North Korean side will commit itself to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and hopes to co-exist peacefully with other involved parties."

   Kim also accepted Chinese President Hu Jintao's invitation to visit China in his meeting with Wang Jiarui, head of the International Department of the Communist Party of China Central Committee. Kim last traveled China in early 2005.

   Pyongyang's state-run media confirmed Kim's meeting with Wang and released photos of the event, but omitted comments related to the six-party talks and inter-Korean relations.

   The pictures show Kim in his trademark quasi-military suit shaking hands with Wang and holding up a wine glass to toast his Chinese guest.

   The six-party talks on North Korea's denuclearization have been at a stalemate since August over a dispute between Washington and Pyongyang on how to verify Pyongyang's past nuclear activities. The latest round of talks in December broke down with a failure to bridge the gap.

   Pyongyang hopes to start anew with Washington's Barack Obama administration after eight years of largely frayed relations with the Bush White House. In an apparent move to draw Obama's attention, North Korea said recently it would hold onto its nuclear weapons until it feels safe from U.S. military forces stationed in South Korea.

   Obama said on the campaign trail he would be willing to meet with Kim to help resolve the nuclear issue. In a speech following his swearing-in ceremony, Obama vowed to work with "old allies and former foes" to lessen the nuclear threat.

   Speculation over Kim's health swirled after his absence from an important anniversary event for the Workers' Party in September, especially because he has not publicly named a successor.

   Observers in Seoul say Kim's meeting with Wang is a signal he is still firmly in control of the socialist state. The leader will turn 67 next month.

   "Common sense would say that Chairman Kim's health condition seems to be normal, as he met with a foreign guest," Seoul's Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Ho-nyoun said.

   Paik Hak-soon, a senior fellow with the Sejong Institute, an independent think tank in Seoul, said China will try to push North Korea to disarm.

   Beijing will try to say that "it is much more optimistic with the Obama administration than Bush's, and that it would be in North Korea's interest to cooperate in nuclear negotiations," Paik said.

   Wang's visits have usually coincided with important events in North Korea. The North Korean leader met Wang in January 2004, shortly before Kim's rare visit to China, and again in February 2005, shortly after North Korea declared its possession of nuclear weapons. Wang's latest trip in January 2008 came ahead of the inauguration of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

   Before his meeting with Kim, the Chinese official held talks with Choe Thae-bok, secretary of the North's Workers' Party central committee, who concurrently serves as chairman of the Supreme People's Assembly, and Kim Yong-Il, premier of the Cabinet, the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said.

   Bilateral relations "are steadily growing stronger under the deep care of General-Secretary Hu Jintao and General Secretary Kim Jong-il," Wang was quoted as saying in the report.

   Sources say Wang's visit aims to lay the groundwork for a possible summit between the two leaders. In a related development, China's foreign ministry delegation visited Pyongyang earlier this month.

   Kim last received a foreign guest when Chinese Vice President Xi Jin-ping visited in June.

   The North Korean leader's latest remarks deepened the South Korean government's concerns that Pyongyang may bypass Seoul in its efforts to reach out to the outside world. Experts here point if Pyongyang engaged in direct diplomacy with Washington, it would further marginalize South Korea's stake in dealing with the communist country.

   Some analysts said Kim is also sending a message to the United States that he is ready to have talks with Washington on a range of thorny issues, such as the establishment of formal diplomatic relations and the conclusion of a peace treaty that would formally end the 1950-53 Korean War.

   The U.S. welcomed Kim's reported comments that he is dedicated to denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. State Department spokesman Robert Wood said in a press briefing on Jan. 23 that the remarks were a "good thing," and the six-party framework "has merit."

   Five days later, South Korea officially welcomed Kim's comment that he wants to push forward with the six-party denuclearization talks.

   Analysts in Seoul say Wang's visit was also aimed at safeguarding China's clout in directing the discussion on North Korea's nuclear program, and that it will not allow itself to be sidelined on the issue.