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North Korea's Kim Jong-il visits China with hat in hand, and a threat

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Kim’s discussions are believed to center on the prospects for Chinese aid to North Korea, where food is in increasingly short supply and the stuttering economy was further weakened last year by a bungled currency reform that has fueled inflation.

When Prime Minister Wen visited Pyongyang this past October, he promised a $200 million line of credit and a string of investment projects, but analysts here say there have been no signs that the aid has been forthcoming.

“They need aid more than ever, and it seems that China is the only possible source,” says Professor Cai.

“Without Chinese aid North Korea cannot survive,” adds Chen Fengjun, a North Korea expert at Peking University’s School of International Studies.

Neighbors, good or bad

That dependence, however, gives Beijing less leverage over Pyongyang than might be thought, he argues.

“We have to help Kim solve his problems,” says Professor Chen. “If we push North Korea towards the American side, that could endanger Chinese security. We have to keep Kim on our side to ensure North Korea’s stability. They are neighbors, and we need good relations with them whether they are good or bad neighbors.”

At the same time, Chinese officials fear, economic collapse in North Korea could lead to chaos there and a flood of refugees across the border into China.

“China’s two main interests in North Korea are stability and denuclearization, but the top priority is stability,” says Cai.

China has led the diplomatic efforts in recent years to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear ambitions, chairing the six-party talks aimed at a deal whereby North Korea would give up its nuclear program in return for international economic aid and diplomatic acceptance.

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