DALIAN, China (Reuters) - Reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong-il arrived in China on Monday in search of economic support and diplomatic protection from his only major ally, after bungled policies at home and military grandstanding that has exasperated the region.
China, which has propped up the North’s leaders for decades, is becoming increasingly fed up with its provocative neighbor, analysts say, but it is willing to bankroll Kim to prevent chaos on its border.
Kim, aware of Beijing’s predicament, is expected to demand sweeteners to rein in his military and return to international nuclear disarmament talks hosted by Beijing.
Wearing sunglasses and his trademark khaki outfit, Kim emerged from a motorcade of about 50 limousines and other vehicles on Monday evening, and walked gingerly into the Furama Hotel in the thriving port city of Dalian.
He crossed into China before dawn in his armored train, with police precautions preceding his every stop. The Furama has covered its facade in a billowing white sheet as part of security measures, and to keep out prying reporters.
In his last trip in 2006, Kim toured China’s industrial centres for a first-hand look under the hood of the country’s quickly growing economy.
Dalian, a rebuilt rust-belt city that has attracted major foreign investment, is a symbol of development that Beijing’s leaders have advocated for years to Kim and his father, state founder Kim Il-sung, to revive the North’s moribund economy.
But Kim has painted himself into a corner.
Economic reforms would open his hermit state and could undermine his “military first” ideology, which justifies economic hardships at home to build a military strong enough to prevent an invasion.
There has been no official confirmation of the trip. Reporters camping out in the Chinese border city of Dandong were hounded out of the area by Chinese security agents just before his special train crossed the river, while Chinese police impeded a South Korean crew from filming in Dalian.
The visit is Kim’s first trip abroad since a suspected stroke in 2008. Analysts are also wondering whether Kim’s youngest son, Jong-un, may be joining him so that he could introduce him as the heir to the family throne in Beijing.
Kim’s trip comes at an even more precarious time for the North’s already struggling economy, hit by U.N. sanctions to punish it for a nuclear test a year ago and a botched currency reform late last year that exacerbated inflation and sparked almost unheard of civil unrest.
South Korea suspects the North of attacking one of its naval ships in late March, killing 46 of its sailors, in what could be one of the deadliest strikes between the rivals since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
Fearful a revenge strike could lead to armed conflict that could damage its rapidly recovering economy, Seoul is looking to punish Pyongyang by cutting into its already meager international finances and sending it deeper into isolation.
This, in turn, could drive Pyongyang even closer to Beijing.
“Beijing has shown great reluctance to forsake pariahs. If anything, it will reinforce the importance of Chinese investment because they will really be the only game in town,” said Peter Beck, a Korean affairs researcher at Stanford University.
In 2009, bilateral trade between China and North Korea, with an estimated GDP of $17 billion, was worth $2.7 billion. As the North’s economy has grown weaker since Kim took over power in 1994, China has supplied more food, oil and goods that serve as a lifeline for his broken state.
Kim’s previous trips to China have led to steps that decreased the security risk the North poses to the region.
Analysts expect a visit to add new life to now dormant international nuclear disarmament talks hosted by Beijing that have been boycotted by Pyongyang for over a year.
The North’s official media has not mentioned the trip and did not announce his 2006 visit until after Kim’s armored train crossed the border and he was safely back in North Korea.
Writing by Jon Herskovitz in Seoul; Additional reporting by K.J. Kwon, Lucy Hornby, Yu Le and Chris Buckley in Beijing and Christine Kim and Cheon Jong-woo in Seoul; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Nick Macfie