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(News Focus) Kim in China amid brisk int'l diplomacy over N.K. nuke, food issues
By Sam Kim
SEOUL, May 23 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's visit to China is raising questions as to his motive as the secretive trip came during a summit in Tokyo between three of his country's influential neighbors and ahead of a rare visit by U.S. officials to Pyongyang, analysts say Monday.

  
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak (R), Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan (C) and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao hold a joint news conference after a summit in Tokyo on May 22. (Yonhap)



Kim's ongoing trip, the seventh of its kind since he took power following the death of his father in 1994, coincided with the beginning on Saturday of a two-day meeting in Tokyo between the leaders of South Korea, China and Japan.

   Kim, who is not believed to have met with any high-profile leader yet in his trip, traveled to China a day after the United States announced it would send a fact-finding mission to look into food shortages in North Korea for five days starting Tuesday.

  
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il with Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2010. (Yonhap file photo)


The series of diplomatic developments came as the countries involved were exploring ways to restart six-party talks aimed at denuclearizing North Korea through negotiations.

   The talks, which group the U.S., the two Koreas, Russia, Japan and host China, have not been held since late 2008. Earlier this year, China proposed that the nuclear envoys of the divided Koreas get together to pave the way for a similar meeting between North Korea and the United States and, eventually, the resumption of the six-party talks.

   Pyongyang, which appeared to agree tacitly on the Chinese proposal, has yet to invite Seoul for inter-Korean denuclearization talks. Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said it is likely that Kim Jong-il, at the end of his Chinese trip, will announce steps toward the dismantlement of his country's nuclear arms programs to facilitate the mood for inter-Korean talks and other forms of dialogue.

   "That would also help raise the diplomatic profile of China, (North Korea's foremost ally)" Yang said, adding that the fact-finding mission led by Robert King, special U.S. ambassador on North Korean human rights, will add to the warming mood in the region.

   Kim Jong-il's trip is as economic as it is political in nature, observers say. Troubled by decades of economic mismanagement and isolation, his communist state is one of the most chronically starved countries in the world and depends heavily on outside handouts to feed its population of 24 million.

   During his latest trip to China, Kim is reportedly touring industrial sites while South Korea said Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, during the Tokyo summit, described the trip as a bid to revive the North's economy on the heels of Beijing's economic rise.

   "By showing the world that North Korea is cooperating with China to deal with its economic problems, Kim Jong-il may be encouraging South Korea and the U.S. to lend a helping hand, especially when King is scheduled to visit Pyongyang," Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea professor at Dongguk University in Seoul, said.

   Experts say obstacles still remain: South Korea says it needs to see North Korea apologize for its provocations last year before Seoul can consider resuming full-scale assistance to the North. Pyongyang continues to deny sinking a South Korean warship in March and refuses to take responsibility for an artillery clash in November.

   The U.S. has described the upcoming trip by King as one that has no political motive but is purely aimed at assessing reported food shortages in North Korea. U.S. relief agencies had said earlier this year that the North needs about 400,000 tons of food to feed its most vulnerable groups such as children and pregnant women.

  (END)
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