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(News Focus) Kim's trip to China to help N. Korea learn development experience
SEOUL, May 22 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's sudden visit to China is aimed at allowing the isolationist country to learn development experience from its close ally, a top Chinese official said Sunday.

   Premier Wen Jiabao said in talks with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak earlier in the day that Beijing invited Kim so Pyongyang could better examine China's economic development process and use it as a reference to revive the struggling North Korean economy.

   "China invited Chairman Kim Jong-il to provide the North with an opportunity to understand China's economic development and use the understanding for its own (economic) development," said Lee's spokesman Hong Sang-pyo, citing comments made by the Chinese leader.

   He added that Wen expressed optimism that North Korea's leaders were examining China's development process in a favorable light.

   The bilateral meeting between Wen and Lee took place on the sidelines of a tripartite summit in Tokyo that also included Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan.

   Beijing has been urging North Korea to follow its footsteps in embracing economic reform, which catapulted China to become the world's second-largest economy after it was a country that had trouble feedings its population only a few decades ago.

   Local experts said that while the latest visit to China marks the seventh for Kim, it is the first time that the Chinese leadership has come forth with details of why the trip is taking place while the North Korea leader is still in the country. In the past, Beijing only confirmed Kim's visits after he returned to his country, and it did not reveal his itineraries during his stays for security reasons.

   Kim began his latest secretive trip to China last Friday, when his train crossed the border and arrived in Tumen and Mudanjiang. On Saturday, the second day of his visit, Kim toured a car plant in Changchun, an industrial hub in northeastern China, before passing through Shenyang to reach Yangzhou by train near Shanghai late Sunday.

   North Korea specialists said that because China is the North's last remaining supporter, comments made by leaders such as Wen could carry weight. China's support to its impoverished neighbor is widely seen as a key to maintaining stability in the North.

   "If the North adopts Beijing's development strategy, the country may try to use it to further expand bilateral economic cooperation with China at first," a source who did not wish to be identified said. The two countries have sped up carrying out joint development projects along the border and are in the process of building a new railway bridge over the Amnok (Yalu) River.

   The source said the North may want to receive economic know-how as well as attract social infrastructure investments in such areas as roads and bridges. He pointed out that a high-ranking delegation of North Korean officials visited China in October, with speculation abounding that Pyongyang may consider allowing special economic zones to be operated with some degree of the autonomy that is needed to ensure economic reform.

   This is in contrast to Pyongyang's previous views on China's move to change itself in the late 1970s. At the time, the North did not openly criticize China's reforms although there were attacks by its leaders that Chinese policymakers were "revisionists" and that similar changes could not be copied by other communist countries.

   If the North actually decides to open itself, such a step can signify real change since in the past the country was weary of opening itself to the outside.

   It can also bolster China's interest as it moves to develop the Changchun, Jilin and Tumen regions of its northeastern region while allowing the country to secure an outlet to the East Sea.

   The East Sea is bordered by the two Koreas, Japan and Russia and connected to the Pacific Ocean.

   Other North Korean watchers, however, said the North had made past attempts to open itself to overcome its economic difficulties, but all have made little headway since there was a lack of follow-up measures.

   Chinese President Hu Jintao said that in August in talks with Kim, China indirectly urged North Korea to open itself to reflect changing times, with little results.

   South Korean scholars, meanwhile, claimed there are underlying concerns that opening the country could lead to its collapse, and these concerns are making it hard for the country to wholeheartedly embrace policies that Beijing implemented in the past.

   They speculated that despite Kim's frequent visits to China, it is still too early to say whether North Korea will go down the path of reforms and economic liberalization.