Thursday, May 6, 2010

North Korea and its seclusive leader - Washington Post

North Korean Can’t Avoid Sunshine in China Trip
The New York Times, May 5, 2010

BEIJING — Much as in the children’s book “Where’s Waldo?” the proof that North Korea’s president, Kim Jong-il, is indeed traveling through China can be obvious, if somewhat headache-inducing to arrive at.

The quest usually begins with a rumor, followed shortly by the unmistakable sight of the Dear Leader’s bulletproof train edging across the Yalu River bridge, the curtains safely drawn as its cars creep into the Chinese city of Dandong from North Korea.

In the days that follow, there are unconfirmed sightings, grainy images of Mr. Kim’s buoyant coif shot by South Korean or Japanese television cameras and the inevitable poker-faced obfuscations by Chinese officials. Only after Mr. Kim has safely returned to Pyongyang do both governments announce that the clandestine state visit took place at all.

The visit by Mr. Kim, which would be his fifth and may or may not have started at dawn Monday, has been no different. On Tuesday, Jiang Yu, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, brushed off reporters’ inquiries about Mr. Kim’s putative sightings. “On this issue in which you are very interested, at present I don’t have any information to offer you,” she finally said.

But the effort to conceal the rare journey by Mr. Kim outside his diplomatically isolated and economically devastated country has not gone so well this time.

Despite an aggressive offense by Chinese police officers who detained several camera operators at one stop and asked them to erase images of their quarry, foreign journalists have managed to track his movements from a luxury hotel and car factory in the port city of Dalian to the official state guest house in Beijing where President Richard M. Nixon once dined on shark’s fin and steamed coconut chicken.

Even if the passengers were hidden behind tinted glass, a motorcade of three dozen vehicles that stopped traffic in the heart of the Chinese capital on Wednesday afternoon was a decent sign that someone important was in town.

Along the way, photographers have captured images of Mr. Kim’s thinning hair, the oversize designer sunglasses and the unmistakable dragging of his left leg, seemingly irrefutable proof that the 68-year-old leader is still grappling with the effects of a stroke he reportedly suffered two years ago.

If the Chinese-language media have avoided any mention of the visit, that is thought to be at the behest of Mr. Kim, whose fears of coups or assassination attempts are well-known. On his way back home from a previous China visit in 2004, an explosion killed at least 180 people at a railroad station in North Korea not long after his entourage had passed through. Even if South Korean analysts later judged it an accident, Mr. Kim’s minders take no chances and often send out decoy trains to confuse would-be saboteurs.

“His security team may be opposed to him flying because if something happens, there is no replacing Kim Jong-il at the moment,” said Haksoon Paik, director of Inter-Korean Relations at the Sejong Institute in Seoul. “He is all they have.”

In the vacuum of official information, the experts and tea-leaf readers have been left to surmise why Mr. Kim chose this moment to make his first foray outside North Korea in more than four years. Does President Hu Jintao want to personally prod Mr. Kim to rejoin the stalled talks over the North’s illicit nuclear weapons program? Or has the North Korean leader simply come, once again, seeking the Chinese food and fuel that will ease the suffering of his people?

Some analysts think Mr. Kim may be seeking China’s blessing for a succession plan that would install his youngest son, Kim Jung-un, as the country’s next leader.

“Maybe he wanted Chinese leaders to see how he drags his foot so they know he is really ill,” said Sang-Hyun Lee, director of Security Studies Program at the Sejong Institute in South Korea.

Given his health woes, succession worries and persistent isolation, Mr. Kim may simply be seeking succor from what may be his last friend on earth. Su Hao, director of the Center for Strategic and Conflict Management at China Foreign Affairs University, said the North Korean leader might have also come to explain whether his country played a role in the sinking of a South Korean military vessel in March that killed 46 sailors. The incident, which has enraged South Koreans, could derail any effort to restart the six-party talks and ease the U.N. sanctions that have strangled North Korean’s already ailing economy.

“I think the situation for North Korea right now is complicated and difficult,” Mr. Su said. “I’m sure the outside world does not want China to abandon North Korea at this moment. It would not be good for anybody.”

At the five-star Furama Hotel in Dalian where Mr. Kim was photographed leaving on Monday – and where white sheets had obscured the lobby windows – things were returning to normal on Wednesday. In a brief telephone conversation, an employee said the hotel’s 626 rooms were open to the public again. All except for one: the presidential suite reputedly occupied by Mr. Kim. “That room is not available,” the woman said mysteriously. “It’s under maintenance.”

Li Bibo contributed research.

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