An armored train carrying North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and his entourage to China traveled non-stop for almost 30 hours from 2:20 p.m. on Saturday until 7:50 p.m. on Sunday, covering around 2,000 km from Jilin Province in the northeastern part of the country to Jiangsu Province in the south.
It is the first time Kim has visited China's three northeastern provinces of Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang and the southern industrial region at the same time. Previously Kim made separate trips to southern cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou in 2001 and 2006 and to the three northeastern provinces in May and August last year. The three northeastern provinces are rich in natural resources and considered the least developed in the country, and Beijing is keen to develop them.
China is apparently interested in using North Korea's Rajin-Sonbong port to ship resources, grain and timber more swiftly and cheaply from north to south. "It takes just a third of the costs to transport goods by ship from Rajin-Sonbong than it takes to move them by train," said Cho Bong-hyun, a researcher at IBK Economic Research Institute.
In December last year, China conducted a trial run by shipping 500 truckloads of coal from Jilin to Shanghai via the port, and Beijing has apparently won the rights to use the North Korean port, which serves as a gateway to the East Sea.
China and North Korea are also apparently going to hold a ground-breaking ceremony at the end of this month for a highway linking China's Hunchun and Rajin-Sonbong.
With the visit, "Kim Jong-il seems to be stressing the message that investing in Rajin-Sonbong and North Korea could enable China to link the three resource-rich northeastern provinces with the southern industrial region," said Cho Young-ki, a North Korea expert at Korea University.
If the maritime route comes into operation, it would effectively encircle South Korea. There is speculation that Kim Jong-il will attend another ground-breaking ceremony for a project to develop an industrial complex on Hwanggumpyong Island in the Apnok or Yalu River on his way back from China. "The maritime route could transport more than just materials," a diplomatic source said. "We could even see Chinese naval forces patrolling the East Sea." China and North Korea have apparently bolstered military ties since last year.
China has been looking for an ice-free port for a long time. If it secures the maritime route, it could use the waters surrounding the Korean Peninsula as its own.
"From North Korea's perspective, economic cooperation with China is a matter of life and death and it needs the economic assistance badly enough to hand over Rajin-Sonbong port," the source said. Aid from South Korea and the U.S. has been halted since North Korea's attacks against the Navy corvette Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island last year, and China is the only source of aid.