Beijing (AsiaNews) - Jiang Song-thaek, uncle of North Korea's new leader Kim Jong-un, is back after a week-long visit to China. Yesterday, he met Chinese President Hu Jintao to enhance their mutual friendship and discuss new economic projects, including in agriculture. The visit came at a time of persistent food shortages in North Korea and heightened tensions between China and Japan as well as other countries in East Asia.
Jiang Song-thaek, vice chairman of the North's National Defence Commission, is married to Kim Kyong-hui, sister of Kim Jong-il who died in December, and is the uncle of the latter's successor, Kim Jong-un.
Jiang has been in China since Monday on a visit aimed at winning economic cooperation from the North's most important ally to help revive the country's moribund economy.
North Korea's economy in fact has suffered from decades of mismanagement, lack of investments and international sanctions triggered by the regime's nuclear programme.
Earlier this week, the two countries agreed to accelerate efforts to jointly develop the Rason, Hwanggumphyong and Wihwado economic zones in North Korea, similar to those that enabled China to develop and modernise.
Jiang, who was accompanied by a delegation of some 50 officials on his trip to China, is the leading proponent of economic modernisation, according to some observers. Until recently, he had been thwarted by the late Kim Jong-il and the heads of the armed forces who saw changes as a threat to their power.
When Kim Jong-il died, his successor with his uncle's help removed hostile high ranking officials from the armed forces and will probably launch plans to modernise an economy that is currently unable to feed the country's 24 million people.
Earlier this month, United Nations and Red Cross officials visited some parts of North Korea affected by draught and flooding. Two thirds of all North Koreans already experience chronic food shortages, this according to United Nations data. In view of the situation, the two international organisations have appealed for aid.
The United States and South Korea have been North Korea's largest donors over the years; however, they stopped humanitarian assistance in response to Pyongyang's continued nuclear programme and its military actions against the South.
Pyongyang's nuclear programme is a major concern, especially for South Korea and Japan. In Tokyo's case, it comes on top of existing disputes with mainland China over the sovereignty of the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu for the Chinese).
This has led some observers to fear that Beijing might use its influence on Pyongyang and the latter's nuclear threat to put pressure on the region's other nations.