Chinese President Hu Jintao told North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in strong terms to reform the North's failed socialist economy and open up the country, a senior South Korean government official said Wednesday.
He made the call during a meeting when Kim visited China last week, using rather more direct terms than Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao had used during Kim's last visit in May, according to the official. Wen told Kim, "I'd like to introduce to you China's experience in the reform and opening drive."
But the official quoted Hu as saying, "Socialist modernization is based on China's three-decade-long experience in reform and opening. Although self-reliance is important, economic development is inseparable from external cooperation."
According to a Chinese official, Kim too directly used the terms "reform and opening" this time. He reportedly told Hu, "Since its launch of the reform and opening drive, China has achieved rapid development."
Up until recently, top Chinese leaders had regarded the terms as taboo words at bilateral summits for fear of upsetting North Korea's delicate feelings, but Wen first broke the taboo in May, and Hu in his advice to Kim even used language such as "enterprise," "market mechanism" and "external cooperation."
A diplomatic source in Beijing said China's insistence on talking about reform shows how concerned China is with the North's mismanagement of the economy.
China's business media made upbeat observations about the North turning toward reform, quoting Kim as saying he was "deeply impressed" after touring major cities in China's northeastern region such as Changchun, Harbin and Jilin.
In an editorial Tuesday, the Global Times, a sister newspaper of China's official People's Daily, wrote, "Living in the shadows of South Korea, Japan and the U.S., North Korea has to wrap itself up tighter in order to fend off military threats, and threats of political and cultural infiltration. North Korea's opening-up will help relieve tensions in Northeast Asia. But, the knot does not only lie on the North's side. Other countries in this region must redouble their efforts to untangle the knot."
It is unclear whether Kim will listen. The North Korean leadership is afraid of any reform that could weaken its stranglehold, and at the moment tight control is essential if the regime is to officially establish Kim Jong-il's son Jong-un as his father's heir.
Kim has paid lip-service to the Chinese economic development model before. After returning from a trip in the early 2000s, he introduced some timid elements of the market economy but swiftly clamped down when markets became too brisk and a new class of successful businesspeople began to look like a threat to his regime.
Han Ki-bum, a former deputy director of the National Intelligence Service in charge of North Korean affairs, in his doctoral thesis quotes Kim as telling economic officials in June 2008, "If you think I'm talking about reform and opening as if I were going to introduce the market economy you're completely mistaken."
At the moment, Kim apparently wishes to stick it out, but the North's dire straits amid international sanctions will make it difficult to ignore Chinese demands.
At the meeting, Hu pointed out that economic cooperation between the two countries would be a "win-win strategy" where "the government takes the initiative, enterprises play a leading role, and the market mechanism is set in motion," according to the South Korean official.
"That means that if China gives the North something, it should also pay in return," a South Korean security official speculated.