North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has given the impression that he is keenly interested in reform and opening whenever he visited China, but at home he has done everything to stem the advance of capitalism, which he regards as the worst threat to his oppressive regime.
In May 2000 when he visited the Zhongguancun science park in Beijing, he said, "China's national power increased due to reform and opening. The Deng Xiaoping line was correct."
When he visited Shanghai in January 2001, he said, "A sea change occurred." And in the Guangzhou-Zhuhai special economic zone in southern China in January 2006, he said, "I was impressed by the change in Guangdong Province."
In North Korea, however, Kim has taken two steps back for any one step forward. In the early 2000s, he permitted the construction of the joint Korean Kaesong Industrial Complex and tried a modicum of small-scale capitalism. But he immediately clamped down on nascent open-air markets when they emerged as a challenge to centralized management.
After removing the reform-minded Pak Pong-ju from premiership in April 2007, Kim stepped up the crackdown on market traders, and a currency reform in December 2009 mainly aimed at dispossessing an emerging middle class. The consequences were disastrous.
"He is only trying to curry favor with the Chinese and line his own pockets with outside aid," a South Korean security official said.
Kim's current marathon visit is taking him to the southern region, the center of China's economy, via Changchun, Jilin, and Tumen, which Beijing is busy developing.
"He chose the itinerary to seek economic cooperation with China and obtain aid by trying to look as if he were interested in the Chinese-style reform and opening," Prof. Lee Jo-won of Chungang University speculated.
The regime apparently wants to develop Hwanggumpyong Island in the lower reaches of the Apnok (Yalu) River and the Rajin-Sonbong zone in the estuary of the Duman (Tumen) River in cooperation with China.
But this will only create remote, isolated enclaves of capitalism, just as the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mt. Kumgang tours it launched in cooperation with South Korea, said Ryu Dong-ryeol of the Police Science Institute.
There are four special zones -- Rajin-Sonbong, Sinuiju, Kaesong, and Mt. Kumgang -- all at the fringes of the country, and surrounded by barbed-wire fences. When the Rajin-Sonbong special zone was set up in 1991, the regime first of all set up a high-voltage barbed-wire fence around it.
China, too, is more interested in economic gains than in helping the North seek genuine reform. By developing Rajin-Sonbong, China gains access to the East Sea from its northeastern region and a maritime transport route to the south. It also wants to use cheap North Korean labor, just as South Korea does in the Kaesong industrial park, if an industrial complex is built in Rajin-Sonbong or on Hwanggumpyong Island.
A source familiar with North Korean affairs said, "If China really wants the North to reform, it would seek to develop inland North Korea. The package tours to Mt. Kumgang or the Kaesong Industrial Complex haven't contributed significantly to changing the regime."