The Dear Leader Does Beijing. But Why Is He in China Again?

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Kyodo / Reuters

What leader of a hungry, isolated regime wouldn’t want to enjoy a little vacation in China? On Wednesday, an armored train carrying North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and his 70-person entourage is believed to have arrived in Beijing, where the man known as the Dear Leader is presumably in town to meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Although Kim has traveled to China three times since May 2010, he only comes by train, because he is thought to dislike flying. Much about North Korea is shrouded in mystery, but Chinese analysts are hopefully speculating that the trip might be an opportunity for Kim and his posse to take notes from China on how to institute market reforms. Although North Korea clings proudly to an ideology called juche, or self reliance, the communist state leans heavily on China as both a supplier of economic aid and as a diplomatic ally.

For the first time ever, some Chinese media organizations have been allowed to speculate on Kim’s visit, with the Beijing-based Global Times taking the lead on such unusual reporting. During previous visits, there has been no confirmation of Kim’s China sojourns until after the fact—and this time neither the Chinese nor the North Koreans have officially admitted to Kim’s China tour. On the day of Kim’s reported Beijing stop, the People’s Daily, the government’s mouthpiece, focused instead of China’s trade relationships with Cambodia and Kazakhstan with nary a mention of a certain North Korean with a gravity-defying hairstyle barreling down the Avenue of Eternal Peace in a massive motorcade.

Besides Beijing, Kim visited the eastern cities of Yangzhou and Nanjing, among others, according to Chinese and South Korean news sources that say the Dear Leader’s China sojourn began last Friday. Yangzhou is the hometown of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, and Kim is believed to have toured a solar energy plant, a shopping center and a scenic spot called Slender West Lake. In Nanjing, Kim visited an LCD factory and squeezed in a visit to another tourist site, this one called Stone City, according to the Global Times.

But obligatory factory tours are a far cry from Kim or his underlings actually introducing the economic reforms that North Korean desperately needs. Indeed, Kim may also be in China to secure more food aid for a country that the World Food Program warned in March is struggling with severe shortages that affect one-quarter of the population. The same day that Kim reportedly was to meet with President Hu, an American delegation arrived in North Korean capital Pyongyang to assess the conditions in a nation that suffered through a particularly frigid, crop-harming season last winter. Kim also is surely eager to gain China’s support for succession plans that appear to have the Dear Leader favoring his youngest son Kim Jong Un.

Meanwhile, the international community continues to worry about North Korea’s developing nuclear program. China supports six-party talks to convince North Korea to denuclearize, and Beijing talked up this approach at a recent East Asia summit. But the U.S. and South Korea, in particular, have shied away from such dialogue, worrying that talks could be seen as rewarding North Korea’s belligerent behavior. Last year, North Korea sank a South Korean ship, shelled a South Korean island and announced potentially dangerous nuclear advancements.

Since 2009, the U.S. has halted food aid to the impoverished nation; the American visit to North Korea this week is the first in nearly a year and a half. But with Kim and his entourage reportedly away in Beijing, the U.S. team had no Dear Leader to welcome them.

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