North Korea's Kim tells China, economy a priority

BEIJING: North Korea's new young leader, Kim Jong-un, told a Chinese official that his government is focused on "developing the economy and improving people's livelihoods," China's official news agency reported late on Thursday.

Kim's comments to the visiting Chinese official, Wang Jiarui, were the latest sign that the new young leader aims to tackle North Korea's decaying economy, which has been poorly managed under the military-first government system.

This is in contrast to Kim's late father who was focused on military tensions and allowed the military to play a key role in running North Korea, which is now struggling with chronic poverty, isolation and damaging floods that could deepen hunger.

"Developing the economy and improving livelihoods, so that the Korean people lead happy and civilized lives, is the goal the Korean Workers' Party is struggling towards," Kim told Wang, the head of the Chinese Communist Party's International Department, Beijing's key interlocutor with the North.

Kim's comments in a meeting in Pyongyang broke no new policy ground, but analysts and diplomatic sources in China and South Korea expect Kim to probably embark on an economic reform package soon.

China's long-standing view of North Korea as a traditional ally and important bulwark against undue U.S. influence has been a little clouded recently by uncertainties about the young Kim's intentions, as well as a brief quarrel over North Korea's detention of Chinese fishermen.

But Kim appeared keen to allay those concerns, and he cited the wishes of his late father, Kim Jong-il, whom he succeeded as dynastic leader of the one-party state last December.

"It is the unswerving will of the North Korean (ruling) party and government to continue Comrade Kim Jong-il's teachings of constantly deepening the traditional friendship between North Korea and China across the generations," Kim told Wang, according to the Xinhua news agency.

Kim has yet to visit Beijing. His late father was a frequent visitor to China in his later years.

Kim, in his late twenties, has sought to impose his own stamp on the top leadership of North Korea, and recently ousted Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho, the country's leading military figure, who was seen as close to Kim Jong-il.

Kim Jong-un was also named marshal of the army in a move that cemented his power. He already heads the Workers' Party of Korea and is First Chairman of the National Defence Commission.

He is gearing up to experiment with agricultural and economic reforms after purging Ri Yong-ho for opposing change, a source with ties to both Pyongyang and Beijing told Reuters.

Experts in Beijing say their government fears that economic malaise in North Korea could give way to damaging instability and torrents of refugees across the border in China, and for decades Chinese leaders have nudged Pyongyang to draw lessons from their route to market economic reform.

But so far, Pyongyang has resisted any dramatic changes in its traditional top-down management of the economy.

China has also hosted now moribund six-way talks seeking to coax North Korea into abandoning its nuclear weapons programme. Xinhua reported that Kim said he was committed to "peace and stability" on the Korean peninsula, but did not mention those talks. - Reuters

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