BEIJING, May 7, 2010 -- China's state media finally confirmed what the international press has been reporting all week – that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was visiting the country.
State broadcaster China Central Television showed video of Kim and Hu Jintao embracing each other after shaking hands during their meeting in Beijing. At a banquet, he offered toasts and clinked his glass of wine with President Hu.
South Korean and Japanese camera crews who staked out Kim's hotel were able to catch on video the secretive North Korean leader limping and dragging his left foot, possibly the after-effect of a suspected stroke in 2008.
Perhaps out of diplomatic considerations for an ally, Chinese television did not show any extended walking shots of Kim during his tour. But it could not avoid showing some dark spots on Kim's face and hands in its newscasts, something Korea watchers will be analyzing in the weeks to come for clues on Kim's real state of health.
The 68-year-old North Korean leader wore his trademark zipped-up jacket and appeared thinner compared to his visit four years ago. But he looked animated during his meetings with the top Chinese leaders.
The Xinhua News agency described Kim's trip as an "unofficial visit" that included stops in the cities of Dalian, Shenyang and Tianjin. The Korean Central News agency said in a dispatch from Pyongyang that Kim "received a sincere and warm welcome from Chinese people wherever he went in China."
Kim used the trip to reaffirm the importance of nuclear disarmament talks sponsored by his Chinese hosts. He told Hu that North Korea "will work with China to create favorable conditions for restarting the six-party talks." Kim stressed that his country "remains unchanged in sticking to denuclearization on the Korean peninsula," according to Xinhua.
But the report did not say whether Kim made a firm commitment to return to the long-stalled negotiations, under which North Korea agreed to dismantle its nuclear programs in return for food and fuel aid. North Korea pulled out of the nuclear talks last year after it conducted a controversial nuclear test that resulted in tightened U.N. sanctions.
Japan's Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada was skeptical about the results of Kim's China visit. "I think it was good that there was mention of the six-party talks," he told reporters in Tokyo. "But realistically speaking, I don't think the talks can move forward unless the issue of the South Korean ship becomes clear."
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The Xinhua report did not say if Kim and Hu discussed the deadly sinking of the South Korean naval ship last March. But South Korean authorities have said the nuclear talks cannot resume until the results of an investigation into the matter are known.
A Chinese expert on North Korea was also skeptical. "I am not so optimistic that North Korea will return to the talks right away," Zhang Liangui, who teaches at the Central Party School in Beijing told ABC. "The statement about the six-party talks was not ideal. Kim did not clearly state he would return to the talks and it remains to be seen what will happen next."
"After all, North Korea's stated priority is to develop its nuclear weapons," said the Chinese scholar who did his undergraduate studies at Pyongyang's Kim Il-Sung University. "So even if it agrees to return to the talks, the goal of denuclearization will probably be difficult to achieve."
"But the Chinese are realists," said Jiang Wenran, a professor at the China Institute of the University of Alberta in Canada. "The key for them is what is best for China, which is stability of the Korean peninsula." Jiang said in an interview that China's goal is "to prevent any escalation in tensions" in its neighboring region.
According to the Korean Central News Agency, "Kim Jong Il expressed satisfaction over the result of his visit." While Chinese media reports did not provide details about the amount of Chinese food, fuel aid and investment promised to Kim, Premier Wen Jiabao reassured Kim about China's continuing economic support for the faltering North Korean economy.
The Chinese Premier cited the "big potential for developing economic and trade cooperation" between the two countries and referred to "major cooperative projects" in North Korea and "infrastructure projects" along the border.
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For his part, Kim welcomed Chinese investment in his country based on "the principles of mutual benefit and win-win," Xinhua reported. He made special mention of a new bridge to be built by China over the Yalu River, which marks the border between the two countries. The bridge "will become a new symbol of friendly cooperation" between North Korea and China, Kim said.
The video broadcast on Chinese state television showed Kim visiting ports and factories during his visit. At one point, he climbed an elevated seat in a factory control room in Dalian, as if to show he could still do so.
During a visit to a biotechnology workshop in a Beijing high-tech zone, his curiosity appeared to be piqued by an exhibit and he queried his guide while the Chinese President stood by watching.