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*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

N. Korea's Kim Jong-il Holds Summit with Chinese President Hu Jintao

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who embarked on a rare trip to China on May 3, arrived in Beijing on May 5 and is believed to have held secret summit talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao, diplomatic sources in Seoul and Beijing said. The meeting may lead Pyongyang to rejoin stalled six-nation nuclear talks in return for heavy economic aid from Beijing.

   The North Korean leader reached the Chinese capital under a veil of secrecy with Chinese officials refusing to confirm that he was even in the country. (China has usually confirmed Kim's visits only after the leader is safely back home.)
North Korea has also remained mum on Kim's trip to China. Kim has been seen by journalists several times since arriving in China on May 3 aboard a special armored train.

   Details of the summit talks between the two leaders have not been disclosed but diplomatic sources say that China, the North's main benefactor, has pressed Kim to return to nuclear disarmament talks that he abandoned last year, in exchange for massive economic aid and investment.

   On the evening of May 5, a fleet of North Korean-flagged limousines escorted by police was seen outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, where Kim would be feted at a welcoming banquet before meeting with top Chinese officials on May 6.

   Security was also very high around the Diaoyutai State Guest House in western Beijing, where foreign leaders often stay on official visits. Police, soldiers and plainclothes agents surrounded the compound of lakes and villas.

   This is Kim's fifth trip to China, and his first since January 2006. Kim had been rumored to be planning a China trip since the beginning of this year.

   The reclusive North Korean leader crossed the border into China early morning of May 3. A 17-carriage train believed to be carrying Kim and his delegation passed through Dandong, a city near the China-North Korea border, and Kim was seen entering a hotel in Dalian in video footage and pictures taken by South Korean and Japanese media later in the day.

   Regular passenger trains from North Korea to Dandong usually have four to five carriages and arrive in the afternoon.

   Kim's trip comes amid increasing suspicions that North Korea may have attacked a South Korean warship that mysteriously sank in March near their western sea border, killing dozens of seamen.

   It also comes as North Korea seeks a return to the stalled six-party talks on its nuclear arms programs, but on two conditions: a peace treaty with the United States to end the state of war on the Korean Peninsula and the lifting of U.N. sanctions.

   Observers say China may offer economic assistance to prod North Korea back to the six-nation talks, which Beijing chairs. South Korea, the U.S., Japan and Russia also take part.

   But Kim may also seek China's support for his anticipated transfer of power to his third and youngest son, Jong-un.

   North Korea has been in growing need of outside assistance to overcome its economic troubles, which deepened after a botched currency reform last year that sparked rare social unrest.

   On May 4, Kim toured industrial facilities near Dalian, media reports said. According to source in Beijing, Kim stopped by the port city of Tianjin on the morning of May 5 before traveling to the capital.

   Kim last visited Tianjin in 2004. In February this year, a senior North Korean party official visited the city in what appeared to be an inspection ahead of Kim's tour of the area.

   His visits to Dalian and Tianjin are likely related to North Korea's plan to encourage North Korea-China economic tie. Dalian is a logistical center in northeast China and could serve as a model for development for North Korea.

   In January, North Korea merged two northern cities, Rajin and adjacent Sonbong, to form its first "special city," known as Rason. It later lowered corporate tax rates and simplified administrative procedures to help speed development and attract more foreign investment.

   In March, North Korea opened the Rajin Port to China and allowed it to use one of its five docks for 10 years. Companies based in Dalian have begun restoration work on the dock and will build large warehouses there.

   Kim needs a dramatic comeback for his country after setting 2012 as the target for it to become a "great, prosperous" nation to mark the centenary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, his father and the founder of North Korea.

   China, the North's neighbor, communist ally and the largest benefactor, has frequently come to the rescue with economic assistance. But their bilateral trade was recently found to have fallen for the first time in a decade. According to Chinese customs statistics, trade between the two neighbors was $2.8 billion in 2009, down 4 percent from a year earlier.

   "The first and foremost goal of Kim's trip is to find a way out of 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.

   Kim may be looking to increase the flow of oil, food and goods that he depends upon to keep the economy going. In 2009, China shipped 519,814 tons of crude oil to North Korea, a fall of 1.7 percent on 2008.

   South Korea has expressed regrets to China over the timing of Kim's visit, maintaining it will not agree to the resumption of the six-party talks until the culprit in the sinking of the Cheonan is found. North Korea has denied any involvement.

   Kim's trip comes just a few days after South Korean President Lee Myung-bak met with Hu on April 30 and asked for China's support in dealing with the naval disaster. Investigators have cited a non-contact external explosion as the likely cause, deepening suspicions against the North.

   "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.

   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," said Cheong Seong-chang, a researcher at private think tank Sejong Institute.