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(News Focus) China bolsters regional clout as North Korea extends survival: experts
By Sam Kim
SEOUL, Aug. 30 (Yonhap) -- China has secured momentum to expand its clout in the region by apparently embracing isolated North Korea and its succession scheme, while Pyongyang has increased its chances of surviving deepening sanctions against it in the latest summit between the leaders of the two countries, analysts said Monday.

   The summit, held in secrecy on Friday between Chinese President Hu Jintao and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in a northeastern Chinese city, underscored the growing need for Pyongyang to turn to its traditional ally for a reprieve from the pressure that South Korea and the United States have mounted on it for months.

   Since May, when a South Korean- and U.S.-led multinational investigation found North Korea responsible for the sinking of a warship that killed 46 South Korean sailors, North Korea has vehemently denied its role and threatened war for any punishment.

   South Korea has nonetheless gone ahead with large-scale naval exercises in the region, sometimes teaming up with the U.S. -- and also raising the hackles of the leadership in Beijing.

   On Monday, as Kim returned to Pyongyang after wrapping up a surprise five-day visit to his country's top benefactor, official media in North Korea and China announced that the leaders of their sides affirmed deepening ties and promised greater cooperation.

   "As North Korea digs in harder, it has no one but China to turn to," Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said. "China knows that and sees it as a chance to tighten its influence over North Korea."

   Holding sway over North Korea has been made easier, Yang said, as Pyongyang seeks to have its hereditary succession plan validated and supported by its major political and economic donor.

   "In return, Hu probably drew a pledge from Kim Jong-il to show progress in the denuclearization of North Korea," a process that has been in limbo since late 2008.

   The dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear arms programs is as important an issue to China as it is to the other members of the six-party talks on the North's nuclear arms programs, because Beijing cannot allow another nuclear-armed state in the region.

   Yang cited the Xinhua news agency report that said when Kim met with Hu in the city of Changchun, he expressed hope for an early resumption of the six-party talks, which also include the United States, South Korea, Japan and Russia.

   The North's Korean Central News Agency did not carry such a comment by Kim, but highlighted his statement that the two nations should carry out the "historical mission to hand over the baton of Chinese-North Korean friendship to the next generation," a possible allusion to his third son, Jong-un.

   Media reports speculated that Kim Jong-un, believed to be 27 or so, accompanied his father and was introduced to Hu in a casual setting designed to portray the meeting as unofficial.

   The speculation underlines the international attention that has piled up on the man that officials and analysts outside North Korea say is highly likely to be appointed to a senior post when the communist state holds a rare ruling party meeting next month.

   "The succession process will speed up now," Baik Hak-soon, a North Korea researcher at the Sejong Institute just outside Seoul, said.

   The two analysts said it remains to be seen what the latest summit, unexpected because former U.S. President Jimmy Carter was in Pyongyang to free an imprisoned American when Kim headed to China, will yield for relations between Beijing and Pyongyang in specific terms.

   But they agreed that a "deal" may have been reached, considering the urgency that North Korea faces ahead of its crucial ruling party meeting and the regional tension and enmity that has soared to a level unseen for years since the Cheonan sank in March.

   Yang even suggested that Pyongyang may have promised Beijing that it will allow international monitors back on its soil and suspend whatever atomic operations it has resumed since the six-party talks ground to a halt. If so, that would be a chance too sweet for Seoul and Washington to dismiss.

   Baik said Seoul and Washington will now have to make up their mind on whether they will stick to their months-long stance of linking the ship sinking to the resumption of the six-way talks.

   "Mistrust is still too deep," Baik said, expressing skepticism. "But Washington will not want to stand idly by as Beijing expands its regional influence. Starting to re-engage Pyongyang in one way or another may now be an option too urgent to put aside."