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(News Focus) Kim's trip to China raises question on North's economic reform
By Kim Kwang-tae
SEOUL, May 23 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's trip to China raises an intriguing question about how he will take advantage of Beijing's experience in economic reform that has made China a global economic powerhouse.

   China has repeatedly pressed its impoverished ally to follow in its footsteps in embracing the reform that lifted millions of Chinese out of poverty and helped Beijing's rise to the world's second-largest economy.

North Korea's Rajin Port on the east coast (Yonhap file photo)

On Sunday, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao renewed Beijing's call on the North Korean leader to study Chinese economic development and use it to revive the North's moribund economy.

   China invited Kim "to provide the North with an opportunity to understand China's economic development and use the understanding for its own (economic) development," Wen told South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in Tokyo, according to Lee's spokesman Hong Sang-pyo.

   It remains to be seen if and when Kim will take any reform measures to improve the North's faltering economy, ranked among the poorest in the world.

   Paik Hak-soon, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute, an independent think tank near Seoul, said the North could take gradual steps for economic reform and openness suited to the country, though it could take time.

The North Korea pavilion at an international trade fair held in Changchun, northeastern China, in 2010. (Yonhap file photo)

"The North has no choice but to take" those steps, he said, though there are concerns reform steps could weaken Kim's grip on power.

   North Korea is trying to keep outside influences from seeping into the isolated country out of fear that it could undermine its control on 24 million people and pose a threat to its regime.

   Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, questioned whether Pyongyang could follow Chinese style-reforms, citing Pyongyang's concerns of political instability and collapse.

   "The North Korean government has no intention to emulate China," said Lankov, who has studied North Korea for 25 years.

   "In North Korea, an attempt at reforms is more likely to bring East German-style collapse, rather than Chinese-style economic boom."

   In 2002, the North designated Sinuiju, a city bordering China, as a special economic zone in an apparent experiment with limited reforms, a year after Kim visited Shanghai and marveled at its economic development.

This photo taken in early May shows a new bridge under construction to link North Korea's Sinuiju to China's Dandong. (Yonhap file photo)

The project, however, fell through after Beijing arrested a Chinese-Dutch governor on charges of bribery and receiving kickbacks.

   The North has since rolled back its fledging reform movement, and its currency reform in 2009 also caused massive inflation and public backlash, dealing a further setback to the North.

   The North has vowed to become a prosperous country by 2012, but it is still struggling to feed its people amid a nuclear standoff with the United States, South Korea and other regional powers.

   The nuclear row keeps the United States from normalizing ties with the North, which is under U.N. sanctions over its nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. That hindered Pyongyang's efforts to attract outside investment, a key to improving the economy.

   Still, the North is seeking to boost economic cooperation with China, the North's last remaining ally and benefactor.

   The two neighbors plan to turn an island in the Yalu River on their border into an industrial complex.

   "This is not the first time when Chinese want to show Kim Jong-il the efficiency of reforms. The Chinese have done this before, with zero result," said Lankov, noting Chinese style-reforms will not happen this time.