By Jon Herskovitz
SEOUL, Oct 12 (Reuters) - China has likely persuaded North Korea to return to nuclear talks but may have also given ruler Kim Jong-il enough backing for him to keep vexing the world with his pursuit of atomic weapons.
Kim relies on neighbouring China, his only powerful ally, to keep him in power by supporting the North’s broken economy with food, fuel and goods.
During a rare visit last week, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao gave very public support to Kim who in turn signalled he is willing to return to nuclear disarmament talks his government once pronounced as "dead", a shift after months of acrimony. [ID:nSP478096]
"Kim Jong-il will have solved problems within his country without any negative influence infringing on his regime or his politics," said Yang Moo-jin, an expert of the North at the South’s University of North Korean studies.
Kim appears ready to revive nuclear talks hosted by Beijing but knows he does not have to give away his trump card, nuclear weapons that are at the heart of his military-first rule, because China has assured him of enough assistance to shore up his failing economy, analysts said.
"What China really wants is to end North Korean adventurism and to ensure that the dispute returns to a negotiating path. It will be flexible on the format of those negotiations," said Cai Jian, an expert on North Korea at Fudan University in Shanghai.
At the weekend, Wen explained the results of his visit to North Korea at a summit with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who are both pressing to enforce the U.N. sanctions and halt all aid until North Korea takes real steps to end its nuclear threat. [ID:nSP472224]
Those sanctions were tightened this year after Pyongyang’s nuclear test in May and missile launches.
Wen may have been able to mitigate concerns in Japan and South Korea that China would give vital support to Pyongyang in violation of U.N. sanctions, analysts said. This could reassure Kim because he would know that the two regional powers are not likely to block the aid pledged by Beijing.
Wen also may have assured Pyongyang that China would not try to undermine Kim’s leadership through strict enforcement of the the sanctions, aimed at cutting off a vital source of hard currency for the North’s depleted coffers through its arms sales.
Beijing’s leaders are worried about moves that could destabilise Kim and bring trouble to its border, analysts said.
"Regime implosion could result in instability in China’s northeast, a flood of North Korean refugees into China, or worse, precipitous reunification with South Korea and a U.S. military presence north of the 38th parallel," analyst Adam Liff wrote in a research note for the Pacific Forum CSIS think tank.
A RESURGENT KIM
Kim has emerged from a suspected stroke in August 2008, which raised questions of leadership, and in the past few months has even more firmly entrenched himself as the supreme authority by revising the constitution and reshuffling cadres to tighten his iron grip.
The difficulty for Kim is not to anger Beijing by pressing too hard with his country’s caveat that it is ready to return to six-way nuclear talks after judging the sincerity of the United States through direct discussions.
The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, which has campaigned for enforcement of the U.N. sanctions, has yet to respond to the North’s overture, but a leading U.S. expert on the North urged Washington to include dialogue in its policy.
"An effective American strategy towards North Korea will require a combination of tough measures with serious dialogue," Joel Wit, a former State Department official who worked on U.S. policy toward the North, wrote in a strategy paper this month.
The United States should use dialogue to prevent the North from further nuclear tests and advancing on designs to build a nuclear warhead for missiles as well as prevent it from selling its nuclear know how abroad, Wit said.
Wit suggested a gradual approach where Washington tells Pyongyang it is unwilling to accept its nuclear status while seeking progressively tighter negotiated limits on its programme.
Few expect any breakthroughs if the talks among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States ever resume after a long track record of hostilities and delays since the first round was held about six years ago.
"Clearly, the restoration of the six-party talks is still far off. And if relations (between North Korea and the U.S.) aren’t handled with skill and care there could be another reversal," said Liu Jiangyong a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing who specialises in East Asian security. (Additional reporting by Chris Buckley in Beijing and Jack Kim and Christine Kim in Seoul, editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Sanjeev Miglani)