North Korea and China are poised to start development work on two joint projects in the border areas. A construction project of developing an island called Hwanggumpyong in the lower reaches of the Duman (or Tumen) River starts on May 28, and construction of roads connecting Hunchun in China and Rajin-Sonbong in North Korea on May 30. High-ranking officials from both countries will visit Dandong and Rajin-Sonbong to launch the projects.
According to a North Korean source, Chinese Commerce Minister Chen Deming and Jang Song-taek, the brother-in-law of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, are likely to attend both events. There is even speculation that Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, widely tipped as the next president, and Vice Premier Wang Qishan will also attend.
Depending on the profile of Chinese officials attending the events, Kim Jong-il or his successor Kim Jong-un may make a surprise appearance. Xi visited Changchun in Jilin Province in January, and Kim Jong-il visited places in the area including a Rajin Shipyard in April.
A South Korean intelligence official said, "It seems North Korea is trying hard to make a big event of economic cooperation with China at the end of this month, but whether China is likely to make a gesture that evidently benefits the North in the current regional climate remains to be seen."
China did not send any high-profile official to the ground-breaking ceremony for a new bridge over the Apnok (or Yalu) River in December last year, but constant high-level contacts are taking place. Chinese Ambassador to North Korea Liu Hongcai made a rare visit to Rajin-Sonbong and Yanbian in March, and North Korean Ambassador to China Ji Jae-ryong met with several top Chinese officials including Xi recently.
And Ri Chol, the chairman of North Korea's Committee of Investment and Joint Ventures, also visited Beijing last month to discuss ways of boosting economic ties.
North Korea is apparently trying to show that effects of economic sanctions by the South can be balanced out by economic cooperation with China. After the sinking of the navy corvette Cheonan last year, South Korea stopped all trade with the North except the Kaesong Industrial Complex.
The North instead dramatically increased trade with China from US$2.68 billion in 2009 to US$3.47 billion last year. Its trade dependency on China, which stood at 52.6 percent in 2009, is likely to exceed 60 percent this year.
Some believe North Korea is hoping to goad the South into action. Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Dongguk University, said, "By sending the message that it can survive on its own without help from the South, North Korea is pressuring the South to embark on improving inter-Korean relations." Already there are calls within South Korea for a more conciliatory North Korea policy, in part to prevent China's growing influences over North Korea.
Kim Heung-kyu, a professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, said, "Although North Korea is trying to send a message that it has Beijing's backing, China is merely pursuing its own 'sunshine policy' by making the limited investment in infrastructure needed to expand its influence over North Korea.