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(Yonhap Interview) N. Korea will try to block Mideast influence: S. Korean minister

All Headlines 07:41 February 23, 2011

By Sam Kim

SEOUL, Feb. 23 (Yonhap) -- North Korea will likely tighten its grip on its impoverished 24-million population as the communist regime seeks to stave off the growing influence of democratic protests in the Middle East, South Korea's point man on Pyongyang said this week.

Unification Minister Hyun In-taek also said Tuesday in an interview with Yonhap News Agency that the chance of North Korea's leader-in-waiting, Kim Jong-un, visiting China is "ever present," considering the current state of ties between the two nations.

North Korea is one of the most suppressive countries in the world, operating a wide network of prison camps for political dissidents while running a massive cult of personality around its omnipotent leader Kim Jong-il and his family.

Assuming Pyongyang's elites have learned of the snowballing Mideast crisis by now, the South Korean minister said its impact on the isolated North will remain "insignificant" for now.

"I think the core of the leadership knows of the situation and sees it. From that viewpoint, it will obviously make efforts to keep the regime from being negatively influenced," Hyun said.

On Monday, Japan's Kyodo news agency said that North Korea has suspended mobile phone rentals for visitors from abroad, possibly out of fear that a free flow of information may spark movement similar to demonstrations sweeping the Middle East.

North Korea's media have also kept completely silent on the events in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, and instead have been stepping up rhetoric warning of influence from Western ideas and cultures.

"I believe the North Korean people have yet to learn of the facts (about the Mideast movement) because the North's television does not report on them and the people can't use the Internet," Hyun said. "For now, the direct impact on the people will not be big."

Hyun did not say what measures the North may have so far taken to ensure its people remain unaware of the events that are threatening long-running dictatorships in the Middle East.

Speaking on the rise of the North's next leader, Kim Jong-un, Hyun said it is "extremely hard" to estimate the timing of his potential visit to China even though it's likely.

"The possibility of a Chinese visit continuously exists because China has very good relations with North Korea at present and (Kim) has risen to the rank of successor," Hyun said.

A trip to China by the 20-something successor to Kim Jong-il would mean China has endorsed the man about whom little is known other than he was educated in Switzerland during his teens.

On Feb. 15, North Korea's official media said that a visiting top Chinese official supported Kim Jong-il's plan to cede his power to the youngest son, quoting the Chinese public security minister, Meng Jianzhu, as "hailing the successful solution of the issue of succession to the Korean revolution."

China provides more than 80 percent of oil, food and other necessities to the North, which has long been under international sanctions for its development of nuclear arms and missiles.

"The key point will be whether (Kim Jong-un) will have the economic base" favorable for his succession of power from his father, said Hyun, the South Korean minister, adding it is "extremely hard" to predict when Kim will travel to China.

The last Chinese trip by North Korea's ruler took place in August last year when Kim Jong-il, then 68, traveled to China's northeastern region, a trip scrutinized for Kim Jong-un's possible accompaniment. During the trip, Kim Jong-il reportedly won Beijing's support for his succession plan. A month later, the North unveiled Kim Jong-un to the world as a four-star general.

In an ensuing party convention, Kim was appointed as a vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers' Party, which oversees 1.2 million troops headed by his father.

Outside officials believe Kim Jong-il began grooming his youngest son as heir following his stroke in the summer of 2008. Kim Jong-un's two older brothers apparently fell out of favor for reasons outsiders only speculate about.

Kim Jong-il himself inherited the North in 1994 after Kim Il-sung, his father and the country's founder, died. No modern country has ever successfully carried out a back-to-back hereditary power succession.

samkim@yna.co.kr
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