China confirms rare visit by North Korean leader


BEIJING - In his first known trip outside his country in 17 years, North Korea's reclusive leader, Kim Jong Il, traveled to Beijing this week for an "unofficial" visit, China confirmed last night.

The state-run Xinhua news service reported that Kim and his entourage met with top Chinese leaders, including President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji, in China's parliament building, the Great Hall of the People.

The 58-year-old Korean leader also climbed atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace, which overlooks Tiananmen Square, and visited Legend Group, China's computer manufacturing giant, in Beijing's equivalent of Silicon Valley.

And all of it occurred under the strictest of secrecy.

"I think visits between states take various forms," said Zhang Qiyue, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, finessing a question about why North Korea wanted the visit kept quiet.

During meetings, Chinese leaders agreed to again provide North Korea with free grain and unspecified goods to help the Stalinist nation of 22 million cope with hunger and profound economic problems.

The visit, which began Monday and ended Wednesday, comes two weeks before Kim is to attend a summit with South Korean leader Kim Dae Jung in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. The meeting will be the first by leaders of the two Koreas since the peninsula's bitter division in 1948.

North Korea, which has pursued and might still be developing a nuclear weapons program, is regarded internationally as a fairly dangerous state. Some political observers fear that if North Korea's economy completely collapses, the country could descend into chaos or launch a last-gasp attack on rival South Korea.

Diplomats in Beijing saw Kim's trip as a welcome sign of openness from a traditionally hermit-like regime. Isolated from most of the rest of the world, North Korea has branched out recently, establishing diplomatic relations with Italy and Australia this year.

China is North Korea's closest ally. Their friendship stretches back to the days when they fought together against the United States in the Korean War (1950-1953). Ties were strained in 1992 after China and South Korea established diplomatic relations, but have warmed in the past year.

As with many things regarding North Korea, yesterday's news conference by the Chinese took on a surreal tone. Zhang, the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, declined to answer questions about how Kim traveled to Beijing and how he spent his time - the sorts of things that most heads of state use as fodder for photo opportunities.

"I don't think it's polite to comment on a state leader at such an occasion," said Zhang, deflecting questions about Kim's appearance, including his pompadour hairstyle. She added, though, that he seemed quite healthy.

Repeating a line from a Xinhua report, Zhang added that Jiang was pleased with the achievements of North Korea under Kim's leadership. It was hard to know exactly what Jiang might have been referring to, though. North Korea is among the poorest and worst-run countries on Earth.

A combination of drought and a rigid command economy has led to famine, which has cost hundreds of thousands of lives in recent years. Tens of thousands of refugees have fled across the border into China to forage for food.

Between 1997 and 1998, North Korea's gross domestic product dropped by 28 percent, from $17.7 billion to $12.6 billion. At night, much of the country remains dark because there is no electricity.

Chinese who live along the border say North Korea reminds them of their nation during the worst days of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when Mao Tse-tung turned Chinese society upside down.

Many nations have hoped North Korea might learn from China's shift from a command economy to one that is more market-oriented.

During his visit, Kim said that North Korea was building its own kind of socialism, but he allowed that China had done well since it began enacting economic reforms more than two decades ago.

"The policy of reform and opening to the outside world, which was initiated by Deng Xiaoping, is correct, and the Korean party and government support the policy," Xinhua quoted Kim as saying.

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