(News Focus) N. Korean leader's China trip may not be worth trouble
By Byun Duk-kun
SEOUL, May 4 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-il may not have much to take back home from his hope-laden trip to China, officials and analysts here said Tuesday, but it may succeed in deflecting attention away from the deadly naval disaster in South Korea for which his regime is being blamed.
The North Korean leader is on the second day of his secretive trip to China that is largely aimed at winning Chinese assistance for his country's ailing economy, further aggravated last year by a botched currency reform.
Kim needs a dramatic comeback for his country that set 2012 as the goal year for becoming a "great, prosperous" nation to mark the centenary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, his father and the founder of North Korea.
He may also seek China's support for his anticipated transfer of power to his third and youngest son, Jong-un.
China, the North's neighbor, communist ally and the largest benefactor, has frequently come to the rescue with economic assistance.
Kim, in return, may announce Pyongyang's return to the six-party talks aimed at North Korea's denuclearization.
"The first and foremost goal of Kim's trip is to find a way out for the North's urgent economic crisis, which was worsened by U.N. sanctions imposed after its rocket and nuclear tests last year," Koh Yu-hwan, professor of North Korea studies at Seoul's Dongguk University, said.
"To win China's assistance, North Korea, too, has to give a present to China, and that is its return to the six-party talks," Koh added.
Its return, however, may not lead to an immediate improvement of the North's relations with the international community, officials at Seoul's foreign ministry said.
Kim's trip to China had been expected to help break the impasse in the denuclearization talks, but hopes for an early resumption of the negotiations nearly vanished after a South Korean warship sank near North Korea on March 26.
Investigators have cited a non-contact external explosion as the likely cause of the disaster, deepening suspicions against North Korea, who has been a suspect from the beginning but denied involvement.
"The sinking of Cheonan is a very serious issue, and the cause of the sinking must be thoroughly investigated. The government plans to decide its steps, including the resumption of the six-party talks, through close consultations with other related countries after the result of the investigation is out," Seoul's foreign ministry spokesman Kim Young-sun said.
U.S. officials have also expressed reservations about immediately resuming the nuclear talks before the North is cleared of possible involvement in the sinking.
Kurt Campbell, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said last month that he had asked China to play a "responsible role" regarding the Cheonan tragedy.
Pyongyang has stayed away from the six-party talks since December 2008, and says it will not return to them until the removal of U.N. sanctions and start of discussions for a peace treaty on the Korean Peninsula that will formally end the 1950-53 Korean War. The talks involve both South and North Korea, the U.S., Japan, China and Russia.
Still, analysts here noted the North's apparent attempt to take away the attention of the U.S. and other countries from the sinking may eventually prove effective.
"The Cheonan incident is fundamentally an issue between the two Koreas. What the U.S. has a bigger interest in are the six-party talks and the denuclearization of North Korea," Cheong Seong-chang, a researcher at private think tank Sejong Institute, said.
"I believe both China and the U.S. will continue to monitor the Cheonan incident, but will gradually move in the direction of restoring dialogue channels of the six-party talks," he added.
The analysts noted the size of China's gift for the North Korean leader may also be limited by the U.N. sanctions.
"Until very recently, the North-China relationship was one in which China provided favors to North Korea, but it will likely turn into a more mutual relationship" due to the U.N. sanctions, Koh said.