North Korea's supreme leader Kim Jong Il met China's president on a state visit to reaffirm close ties and increase cooperation on economic development, China's official media confirmed Thursday, indicating the trip was over.
Since Friday, there has been speculation Kim was on a secretive visit to China to appeal for food aid and study the economic reforms enacted by China.
The confirmation by state broadcaster CCTV and the Xinhua News Agency was a clear indication that the visit had ended since neither Beijing nor Pyongyang confirm Kim's visits until after he returns to North Korea. Premier Wen Jiabao, however, did take the unusual step of telling South Korea's prime minister that Beijing had invited Kim to China, expressly to study its economic reforms.
The reports said Kim met with President Hu Jintao, Wen and other leading officials and attended a state banquet in Beijing on Thursday night.
No mention was made of the presence of 69-year-old Kim's son and heir-apparent Kim Jong Un on the trip.
Xinhua's report also said Hu proposed at their Thursday meeting that the countries make "more efforts to share experiences on party building and state governance and promote economic and social development."
Hu also urged that they boost communication and coordination on major international issues and "jointly safeguard regional peace and stability" — a likely reference to the international standoff over North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile programs.
A unique relationship
The highly ritualized nature of the summit is emblematic of the unique relationship between the two communist allies, sealed when China sent troops to save the regime founded by Kim's father, Kim Il Sung, as it faced defeat in the 1950-53 Korean War.
Kim generally avoids foreign travel, but his third trip to China in just over a year shows how much he relies on his neighbor.
China is North Korea's most vital diplomatic and economic supporter and is determined to shore up the isolated hardline communist regime and forestall a collapse that could unleash political chaos and send waves of refugees across its border. Its economy in ruins, North Korea is again struggling to feed its people following flooding last summer and a bitter winter. The trip comes as a U.S. delegation visits North Korea to assess its food needs.
North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency carried a similar report to the Chinese one, calling the visit "unofficial" and providing a lengthy list of North Korean officials who accompanied Kim.
Neither report mentioned food aid or other forms of assistance or of Kim learning from the Chinese economic model.
China's backing has grown even more important to North Korea since South Korea's conservative government halted unconditional food and fertilizer shipments in early 2008 and suspended almost all trade with the North. Pyongyang is also hobbled by sanctions from the U.S. and the U.N. designed to punish the country for violating nuclear agreements.
But while Beijing is pushing North Korea to reform its moribund economy, previous halfhearted attempts have been abandoned by Pyongyang and it's unclear how far 69-year-old Kim — or his anointed successor, son Kim Jong Un — are willing to go.
Earlier in his visit, Kim — who is said to fear flying — traveled by special armored train to the northeastern cities of Mudanjiang and Changchun, as well as Yangzhou and Nanjing in the economically thriving eastern province of Jiangsu.