Jang Song-taek, the eminence grise behind the North Korean throne, is visiting China flanked with a 50-strong entourage, fueling speculation that 20-something North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will also soon travel to Beijing.
North Korean Minister of Public Security Ri Myong-su visited China between July 24 and 28, while top Chinese apparatchik Wang Jiarui was in North Korea between July 30 and Aug. 3. The exchange of visits came some months after relations between the two sides chilled over the launch in April of what Pyongyang claimed was a space rocket.
"It will be difficult from a protocol standpoint for Kim Jong-un to visit China immediately after Jang Song-taek," a government source here said. "Kim Jong-un will choose the date of his visit to China after considering the launch of China's next leadership," the source added.
Some experts say Kim, who is just 29, would feel uncomfortable meeting China's highest-ranking officials, who are in their 60s and 70s. There is apparently some debate in China whether the young North Korean leader should be given the same diplomatic recognition as his late father Kim Jong-il.
"One of Jang Song-taek's missions will be to gauge this type of sentiment in China and weigh the conditions ahead of Kim Jong-un's visit there," a diplomatic source here speculated.
Until Jang's visit, government officials here had apparently expected Kim himself to visit Beijing. "Chinese Ambassador to Pyongyang Liu Hongcai left North Korea on Aug. 6, and this was viewed as a precursor to Kim Jong-un's own visit to China," a source said. China's ambassadors to North Korea have customarily returned to their country a few days before former leader Kim Jong-il's state visits, in order to greet him as he crossed the border and to accompany him during his visit.
But officials here now believe Liu returned to Beijing in order to greet Jang rather than Kim. Beijing is believed to have rolled out the red carpet for Jang because of his influence in North Korea as the uncle and patron of the young leader.