COURTESY OF SHI YONGMING
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il paid a visit to China from May 3-7. The trip was on the agenda as early as last January, when Wang Jiarui, head of the International Department of the Communist Party of China Central Committee visited North Korea and delivered Chinese President Hu Jintao's invitation to Kim.
The latter chose to come at the beginning of the World Expo in Shanghai. He also brought the Chinese people a North Korean opera adapted from the Chinese classic A Dream of Red Mansions. These actions created an atmosphere of peace and friendship.
But changes in the situation on the Korean Peninsula over more than a year past have made the North Korean leader's visit extremely nuanced, and it has thus attracted a flood of attention.
The international community is concerned about North Korea because of its domestic economic difficulties and leadership succession. What's more, its relations with South Korea are growing increasingly tense and complex. And there is the nuclear issue. The world expects the resumption of the stalled six-party talks aimed at resolving the issue.
Many foreign media guessed Kim would put seeking economic aid on top of the agenda of his visit. But in fact, strengthening economic cooperation has been a regular item of high-level exchanges between China and North Korea in recent years. And it was not the first time China has introduced its experience in reform and opening up to North Korea.
Since 2000, Kim has in total paid five visits to China. In each visit he studied the development of China's economic reform. And he himself also brought forward a concept of "new thinking" at the beginning of this century.
The international community has expressed the wish of seeing reform and opening up, similar to China, in North Korea. And Pyongyang has also carried out some economic reforms. But, after all, the development path chosen should be decided by the country itself.
In addition to its own wishes, North Korea's domestic situation and the complex international environment it faces also affect its choice of policy. While problems in its external security environment remain unresolved, it is difficult for Pyongyang to make fundamental changes in domestic policies.
Some think the international community could force it to change by strengthening economic sanctions. This is actually a self-deluding assumption, because international sanctions tend to produce only limited political results.
China stands for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and supports the UN Security Council's sanctions against North Korea. But it insists sanctions should be limited to preventing North Korea from developing nuclear weapons, rather than directed against the people.
China has conducted a series of cooperative activities with North Korea about livelihood and the economy. This could help ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula and promote the solution of the nuclear issue.
But this is still not enough. During Kim's recent visit to China, Chinese President Hu Jintao emphasized the two countries should strengthen "strategic communication."
He said the two sides should exchange views on domestic and foreign policies, the international and regional situation, as well as governance experiences.
His advocacy showed China's wish to deepen its relations with North Korea, with the aim of maintaining the stability of the Korean Peninsula.
During their meeting, Hu and Kim urged all parties to work for the resumption of the six-party talks.
But the increasingly complex situation on the Korean Peninsula has cast a mist over prospects for the talks, which involve North Korea, South Korea, the United States, China, Russia and Japan.
Since South Korean President Lee Myung Bak took office in 2008, inter-Korean relations have deteriorated. On November 10 last year, the two exchanged gunfire along their disputed western sea border.
On January 11 this year, taking the opportunity of the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War, North Korea proposed negotiations on a peace agreement among relevant parties. But this did not help ease tensions.
Later, on January 27, the two sides fired shots at each other in their disputed waters. On March 8, South Korea kicked off a joint military exercise with the United States. In response, Pyongyang ordered the whole nation to be ready for war.
In this mutual high alert, on March 26, South Korean warship Cheonan sunk following an explosion while it was on duty in western waters off the Korean Peninsula.
South Korean media immediately targeted North Korea. Facing such a sensitive problem, the South Korean Government did not ask the UN or other international organizations to participate in investigations. Instead, it invited some U.S. experts for a private investigation.
Meanwhile, the United States and South Korea both said they would not resume the six-party talks before there was a result from the investigation. This greatly increased uncertainties on the Korean Peninsula.
The U.S. factor
In addition to the Cheonan's sinking, the policies of the United States also have further complicated matters.
During his election campaign U.S. President Barack Obama proposed solving the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue through dialogue. But now, after he has been in office for more than a year, his policies seem to be getting tougher.
Although Obama has said he is committed to establishing a nuclear-free world, in the Nuclear Posture Review released by the U.S. Department of Defense in April, he clearly stated the policy of non-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states did not include North Korea and Iran.
This was regarded as a hostile act by North Korea. Given that Obama has strongly pushed for stricter sanctions against Iran and the U.S. military has been declared ready for military strikes against that country, we could not hold positive attitudes toward his future policies on North Korea.
The author is an associate research fellow with China Institute of International Studies