Kim Jong Il was the oddest kind of ruler, seen everywhere at home but never abroad. Since becoming North Korea's strongman in 1994, Kim had not met a fellow head of state before last week, when he made a secretive three-day visit to Beijing and talked with President Jiang Zemin, Prime Minister Zhu Rongji and other officials. On the insistence of the North Koreans, Beijing disclosed the visit only after it was over, and it was not all diplomacy. Once famous for his alleged love of wine, women and the movie life (he once had his agents kidnap a South Korean film director and his actress wife, just to get a bit closer), Kim confided to his bemused Chinese hosts, "Now I've quit smoking and I drink only a little wine."
Has Kim Jong Il, 58, really changed? His Chinese hosts were clad in Western business suits, but Kim appeared to have stepped out of the 1960's. He wore an ill-fitting gray Mao suit and a lapel badge bearing the likeness of his late father, "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung. Yet there was Kim--a dynastic leader who has made it illegal to log on to the Internet in North Korea--enthusiastically touring Beijing's version of Silicon Valley. Kim appeared delighted by the computers at Legend, China's leading computer manufacturer. Perhaps Kim, whose regime is notorious for demanding goods as payoff in diplomatic negotiation, was just shopping? No, it's not just a tactical move, says Pyongyang watcher Marcus Noland; Kim's Beijing visit may indeed signal a "strategic reorientation in North Korean foreign policy."
There are other signs that the legendary recluse is nosing North Korea out of its isolation. Recently Pyongyang has established diplomatic relations with Australia and Italy, set up a consulate in Hong Kong and held talks on improving ties with Britain, Germany and Canada. Now Kim's surprise trip to Beijing suggests he is seriously preparing for the historic June 12-14 Pyongyang meeting with South Korean President Kim Dae Jung--the first Korean summit since the Korean War.
Then again, it's never clear with Kim. Pyongyang is believed to be seeking as much as $800 million in food, fuel and debt relief from China, and Kim left Beijing with unspecified promises of aid. Beijing's generosity will set a benchmark for Seoul, which also expects to be hit up for aid by its northern "brothers." And in terms of bonhomie, the Beijing summit will be a tough act to follow. After Kim was safely back home, Chinese TV ran footage of an ebullient Great Leader smiling, kissing and hugging Chinese Politburo members. Vice President Hu Jintao appeared startled by Kim's embrace. Even more surprising: for years Pyongyang has ridiculed communist states that abandon communism, but Kim openly praised the "great achievements" of Chinese economic reform. What next?