Jang Song-thaek’s visit sign of a fresh start for China-NK relations

Posted on : 2012-08-18 10:12 KST Modified on : 2012-08-18 10:12 KST
North Korea’s second in command garners promises of investment, high-level treatment

By Park Min-hee, Beijing correspondent

Jang Song-thaek and Hu Jintao's August 17 meeting could symbolize a fresh start to relations between Pyongyang and Beijing in the Kim Jong-un era.

Hu, the Chinese president, referred to North Korea as a "brother" and emphasized the cooperative relations between the two countries, offering his sympathies for North Korea's recent flood ravages. Jang, the vice chairman of the Workers' Party of Korea, is believed to have talked about his country's current economic reform measures and asked for active support from Beijing.

Relations between the two countries were strained due to internal problems in Pyongyang after the death of Kim Jong-il last December and the country's April long-range rocket launch attempt. Things are now showing signs of normalizing, with Jang and Hu's meeting coming on the heels of a North Korea visit early this month by Wang Jiarui, Chief of the Chinese Communist Party’s international affairs office, to meet with Kim Jong-un.

In particular, the two countries look to be moving forward with the development of North Korea's Rason and Hwanggumpyong special economic zones, the centerpiece of their economic cooperation efforts. With this, China has moved to improve North Korea's economic conditions and gain a new foothold in their relationship.

Jang, who controls North Korea's economic policy, worked overtime for the project during his China visit. He launched the North Korea-China joint development collaboration leadership committee for the zones with China on Aug. 14, and reached a number of concrete agreements on electricity supplies, communications network development, and simplification of customs procedures. Later in his trip, he visited the northeastern Chinese provinces of Jilin and Liaoning, which are linked with the Rason and Hwanggumpyong efforts, and met with their local Communist Party secretaries, Sun Zhengcai and Wang Min, to ask for investment in the zones’ development. That development, and the issue of Chinese economic support, were reportedly discussed in depth at an August 17 meeting with Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

The success of the zones’ development is crucial for North Korea in its current push for economic reforms and improvements to living conditions. This accords with Beijing's strategy of leading Pyongyang into a gradual normalization through reforms and openness, with an eye to eventually resolving its nuclear program issue.

Another positive signal for Pyongyang is the string of Rason investment declarations by large Chinese corporations following Jang's visit.

The Yatai Group, a major construction and real estate conglomerate, signed a contract with the Rason people's committee to develop a construction materials complex in the city. On Friday, the large state-owned Ludi Group announced it would also be investing in Rason. Its director, Zhang Yuliang, announced in an interview with the People's Daily website people.com.cn that his company would be taking on the construction of basic facilities at Rason, including a power grid.

Another notable aspect of Jang's visit was the glimpse it gave of a more open and pragmatic relationship between Pyongyang and Beijing in the Kim Jong-un era. Jang traveled openly in China, and his itinerary and the content of his meetings with Chinese officials were promptly reported by media such as the Xinhua News Agency. In particular, both North Korea and China gave detailed reports on their agreements on the day of their joint Rason/Hwanggumpyong leadership committee meeting and the day after. No agreements were announced at all for the first two meetings of this committee.

Beijing seemed fairly taken with Jang, who is known for being a pragmatist with favorable views on China. Hu said he had "great respect for the major role that Comrade Jang Song-thaek had played in developing friendly relations between China and North Korea over the past few years."

Liu Hongcai, China's ambassador to North Korea, also canceled his vacation plans to accompany Jang on his travels.

Please direct questions or comments to [englishhani@hani.co.kr]

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