China keen to reassure ally after Kim's death

Wed, Dec 21, 2011, 00:00

THE STREETS around the sprawling North Korean embassy grounds were sealed off to traffic yesterday morning as Chinese president Hu Jintao made an early morning visit to offer his condolences on the death of the “Dear Leader”, Kim Jong-il.

Mr Hu was keen to assure China’s communist ally, which largely subsists on Chinese oil and food handouts, of its strong support amid an uncertain leadership transition, and the Chinese government later said the “Great Successor”, the young and inexperienced Kim Jong-un, would be welcome to visit China.

“We are confident that the people of North Korea will carry on the task bequeathed by Comrade Kim Jong-il, and closely unify around the Korean Workers’ Party, and under Comrade Kim Jong-un turn their anguish into strength,” Mr Hu said in his condolence remarks.

“Co-operative relations between China and North Korea is the immutable and unwavering guiding policy of China’s party and government,” he said.

As Mr Hu was paying his respects, a flurry of diplomacy was continuing. China’s foreign minister Yang Jiechi spoke to his South Korean counterpart Kim Sung-hwan, and to US secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

The Chinese state broadcaster showed a sombre Mr Hu bowed in mourning. He was accompanied by vice-president Xi Jinping, who is tipped to replace him at the helm of the Communist Party next year.

Beijing’s official message of condolence was heavy with Marxist-Leninist acronyms, underlining the close ideological links between China and North Korea.

The North Korean flag flew at half-mast in the embassy compound. Nearby, a group of North Koreans, wearing black suits and sporting their national flag on their lapels, got out of their car, their faces puffy with grief and their eyes red from crying.

China likes to characterise its relationship with North Korea as being “as close as lips and teeth”, and a friendship “sealed in blood”.

However, North Korea has put pressure on that relationship in recent years.

Pyongyang’s nuclear programme has irritated the Chinese as it has marginalised China within the international community at a time when Beijing is trying to bolster its regional diplomatic credentials.

China is keen that North Korea act as a buffer state between it and South Korea, which is a close ally of Washington where 36,000 US troops are stationed. The last thing Beijing wants is US troops on its borders.

China also has an economic stake in stability in the North.

Should the regime collapse, hundreds of thousands of refugees could come flooding across the Yalu River, which separates the North from China.

In the last 18 months of his life, Kim Jong-il visited China four times – always by train, as he had a fear of flying.

One of the chief reasons for the visits was to gain Beijing’s approval for his son’s succession, which appears to have been granted.