Will China's New Leader Seek Reform in N.Korea?

      November 16, 2012 11:34

      China's new leader Xi Jinping is unlikely to change the country's relationship with North Korea drastically, but experts predict Xi could push for specific reform plans in the North and greater market opening.

      "Beijing believes it is important to stabilize North Korea and halt its nuclear ambitions to benefit China's economic growth," said Park Byung-kwang at the Institute for National Security Strategy. "China thinks it is possible to stabilize North Korea and resolve the nuclear dilemma over the long-term by strengthening economic cooperation."

      Xi and the rest of China's new leadership were appointed to the Politburo Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party based on the successes they achieved in regional reforms. "They will ask North Korea for more specific and tangible reforms and market-opening measures than in the Hu Jintao era," said Choo Jae-woo at Kyunghee University.

      In this photo released by China's Xinhua news agency, China's new leaders, from left, Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan, and Zhang Gaoli, arrive for a press conference after being elected members of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the 18th Central Committee of China's Communist Party at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Thursday. /AP-Newsis

      North Korea is finding it increasingly difficult to ignore China's demands. The North's dependence on China for trade rose from 52 percent in 2005 to 84 percent last year. And 90 percent of the crude oil North Korea uses comes from China. Beijing apparently shut off the oil supply temporarily to North Korea when the six-party nuclear talks broke down in 2003 and when the North conducted a nuclear test in 2006.

      Young North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is expected to visit China and meet Xi as soon as possible. Some forecast a visit to China by Kim as early as January. "New administrations in South Korea and Japan will be chosen in December, while Kim Jong-un will mark his first year as leader," said an informed source. "He will want to visit China and consolidate support for his leadership before China, South Korea, Japan and the U.S. finalize their North Korea policies."

      He will also be looking for handouts from China ahead of the birthdays of former leader Kim Jong-il (Feb. 16) and nation founder Kim Il-sung (April 15).

      Officially, Xi and Kim have not met, but they may have spoken in late August 2010, when Kim went to China with his father, former leader Kim Jong-il. "There is a tradition of exchanging greetings between the next leaders of China and North Korea," said one intelligence official here.

      When Xi was chosen as the next leader of China back in 2008, his first overseas visit was to North Korea.

      But it remains to be seen how relations develop. Chinese experts have said that Beijing's influence on the stubborn North Korean military is limited, and Pyongyang could conduct a third nuclear test or launch a military provocation against South Korea, putting China in a bind.

      If on the other hand China's relationship with the U.S. worsens, North Korea's strategic value increases. "China-North Korea relations will be closely related to China-U.S. relations, inter-Korean relations and China-South Korea relations," said a diplomatic source.

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