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As China dazzles, North Korea clings to dogma

People watch file footage of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il broadcast on a TV screen in a Seoul train station on May 20, 2011. South Korean news agencies reported that Kim Jong Il travelled Friday to his country's key ally and benefactor China, raising confusion over earlier reports that it was his son Kim Jong Un who made the trip.

Lee Jin-man/Lee Jin-man/Associated Press

Kim Jong-il is in China, again. He's supposedly studying the country's economic development, again.

It's the Dear Leader's third visit to his neighbour (and sole remaining friend) in less than a year. South Korean press reports have suggested that his son and heir apparent, Kim Jong-un, may be travelling with him.

A 40-car convoy was spotted buzzing under police escort through the eastern city of Nanjing on Tuesday, as was Mr. Kim's armoured train. According to South Korea's Yonhap news agency, the show stopped at Nanjing Panda Electronics Co., which has been producing television sets from Mao Zedong's time to Hu Jintao's.

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The day before he arrived in Nanjing, Mr. Kim and his entourage reportedly visited an industrial park and a discount store in the city of Yangzhou. The next stop is believed to be Shanghai, the most spectacular example of China's economic transformation over the past two decades.

All this has lead to the usual speculation: is Mr. Kim preparing to finally introduce desperately needed reforms to his country's economy? Is he about to open North Korea up, to China if not the rest of the world?

And then you check the archives. As far back as the turn of the century, there were excited articles about Mr. Kim's trips to China, what he might learn there and how that might open the megalomaniac dictator's mind to possible change in his own country.

"We see reform and openness as a trend of the era and believe that the development the Chinese government achieved through economic reform policy will serve as a reference to North Korea's economic development," South Korea's foreign ministry said in a hopeful response to a 2001 visit Mr. Kim made to Shanghai.

Ten years later, and the more telling news is that a U.S. team landed in Pyongyang Tuesday to investigate reports that another famine may be developing there, the worst since somewhere between 900,000 and 3.5 million North Koreans starved to death in the early 1990s.

In December, the Kim regime took the rare step of ordering all its embassies abroad to ask for food assistance, and the World Food Programme reported in March that it believed that more than a quarter of the country's 23 million citizens were in need of urgent food aid. The WFP warned that North Korea's public food distribution system would be completely exhausted sometime between May and July.

Despite paying lip service to the progress in China -- and the opening of some small-scale industrial zones that had their profits redirected rather than reinvested -- Mr. Kim and his cadres stick stubbornly to their failed economic system. Meanwhile, they ensure their country's deepening isolation through the periodic military provocations of South Korea and their destabilizing and expensive pursuit of nuclear weapons.

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Mr. Kim doesn't need to take the train to Shanghai to see how far China has progressed since leaving the strictures of a command economy behind 30 years ago. He just needs to drive to the northern city of Sinuiju and to stare across the Yalu River into the Chinese city of Dandong. The Chinese side glitters with life and activity while the North Korean side sits silent, dark and hungry.

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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