By Kim Young-gyo
HONG KONG, Aug. 17 (Yonhap) -- Jang Song-theak, the powerful uncle and key guardian of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, appears to have clinched stronger economic support from China during his latest trip to the strongest ally, observers said Friday.
China said earlier on Tuesday that it has agreed with North Korea to ramp up their joint development of the North's economic zones.
Under the agreement, a special economic zone in the city of Rason will turn into one of North Korea's most advanced manufacturing and logistics hubs as well as a regional tourism center in the country.
Rason, which was designated as a special economic zone in 1991, had seen no major progress in its development. In June last year, North Korea and China broke ground on a joint project to develop Rason.
The two countries will also set up the Hwanggumpyong and Wihwa islands zone as a host to the finance, economic and IT sectors.
The announcement came a day after Jang started his six-day visit to China, which is scheduled to wrap up Saturday.
Jang, who led an unusually large delegation of some 50 North Korean officials, held a high-level meeting with China's commerce minister Chen Deming, to secure investment from its closest ally, a key to improving North Korea's impoverished economy.
His trip to China has sparked widespread international interest, as he is practically the No. 2 man in the North Korean regime, being the vice chairman of the North's National Defense Commission (NDC).
Earlier in April, North Korean leader Kim named himself as the first chairman of the NDC. Kim has yet to officially visit China after assuming the leadership in December following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il.
The Chinese Ministry of Commerce expected China's investment in North Korea will gain speed in the future, with the two sides getting even closer.
"China and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) are heralding an era of opportunities to deepen economic cooperation and jointly develop economic growth," Chen Jian, the vice-minister of commerce, said in an article he published in the state-run newspaper People's Daily, using North Korea's official name.
"China will actively support Chinese companies' investment in the DPRK."
In recent years, China has already emerged as the communist state's key supplier of economic goods, with international sanctions in place amid the North's nuclear ambitions.
China has been the long-time and most reliable benefactor for the poverty-stricken North, since the two countries fought on the same side against South Korea and the United States in the 1950-53 Korean War that ended in a truce.
In 1961, China and North Korea signed the Sino (North) Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty whereby China pledged to immediately render military and other assistance to its secretive ally.
China is now estimated to account for more than 80 percent of the North's total trade volume. Data released by the Chinese customs office showed North Korea's trade with China jumped nearly 25 percent on-year in the first six months of this year.
According to the Chinese General Administration of Customs, the two allies' trade came to US$3.14 billion during the January-June period, up 24.7 percent from the same period a year earlier.
The North's exports to China totaled $1.3 billion during the first half of this year, up 22.2 percent from a year earlier. Its imports from China grew 26.5 percent on-year to $1.84 billion over the cited period.
This resulted in a trade deficit of about $540 million for the North.
Chinese leaders have long been urging North Korea to open itself to the world, reflecting "changing times."
The North Korean regime has defied such calls in the past, fearing outside influences could undermine its control on its 24 million people and pose a threat to its regime.
Meanwhile, North Korea has designated the year 2012 as a moment in its history to rise as "a great, powerful and prosperous nation" -- a propaganda slogan that was spearheaded by the former leader.
Despite its vow to become a prosperous country by 2012, the North is still struggling to feed its people.
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