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Asia

North Korea and China seek common ground for enterprise

The influential uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un is in China for talks on the development of economic zones. While both countries are nominally "one-party socialist" states, their agendas are quite different.

Jang Song-Thaek, who leads the North Korean delegation for talks on the setting up of two economic zones, is considered a real power in the land.

Jang, who is the husband of former leader Kim Jong-Il's sister Kim Kyong-Hui, is considered something of a regent - having helped to guide the succession.

North Korea is eager to build up its broken economy, with Jang is one of the men most heavily involved in trying to channel investment into two regions near to the country's border with China.

Meanwhile Beijing is eager to maintain influence in North Korea and maintain stability in the region. However, according to Professor Aidan Foster-Carter, Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea, this is unlikely to come at any price.

North Koreans rest at a send off ceremony for a North Korean leisure boat from the port in Rason city

Rason is viewed by China as a useful doorway to the Sea of Japan

"The Chinese are tired of handouts," said Foster-Carter. "They want North Korea to be going for projects that are economically viable. They want it to embrace market forces."

Indeed, it's a feeling that is apparent in Beijing's attitude to the two very different economic zones, says the professor. "The two couldn't be any more different."

New route to the sea

The Rason Economic Trade Zone is centered on the North Korean port city of Rason, with China interested in having direct access to the Sea of Japan.

For decades, there have been plans for the area, along with nearby Russian ports, to become a shipping hub - a so-called "Rotterdam of the East."

For its own pragmatic reasons, China is keen to invest in Rason.

"A lot of the old industry in three northeastern provinces of China has seen better days, but getting access to the sea would be important. There is a proper basic economic interest in this for China, apart from any regional politics."

Indeed, there are plans on Beijing's part for an airport, a power plant and a cross-border railway, among other things. Beijing intends to secure the right to use the port for the next 50 years.

Little interest in 'sandy islands'

In contrast, Foster-Carter suspects that the desire to develop the other region earmarked for development - the Hwanggumpyong and Wihwado Economic Zone - comes more from Pyongyang. The zone, which comprises two "sandy islands" in the Yalu River on the western frontier with China, appears to be of little strategic or economic value to Beijing.

Rice plants grow from the cracked and dry earth

North Korea is seeking agricultural as well as industrial reform

"The Chinese are not really interested in them and from satellite pictures it appears there is nothing happening on those islands," said Foster-Carter.

"I think in these talks, the North Koreans will probably be saying that they feel let down that the money hasn't been invested."

The delegation from Pyongyang is thought to number some 50 people. While the specifics of the economic projects are likely to feature in the talks, Foster-Carter expects some wider issues to be thrashed out.

"It's a very large delegation and they are staying for a week. That would suggest that a broader agenda is in play and there may be more projects announced."

Despite the doubts about the Yalu Islands, plans to develop both economic zones were agreed to on Tuesday.

China's Ministry of Commerce also reported there were plans for cooperation on construction, training, laws and customs. North Korean officials were also expected to tour China's north-eastern provinces of Liaoning and Jilin, which border the North Korean development zones.

Author: Richard Connor (AFP, dpa, Reuters)
Editor: Sarah Berning

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