China, North Korea's closest ally and biggest source of financial support, on Monday said it was “shocked” by the death of Kim Jong-il and pledged to continue “consolidating and developing” ties with its troubled eastern neighbour.

China's biggest concern in the wake of Mr. Kim's death, analysts said, was instability that could arise from internal succession politics — and potentially spill over across the Yalu river into northeastern China. “For China, peace and stability in North Korea is most important,” Gong Keyu, deputy director of the Centre for Asian-Pacific Studies at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies and a leading Chinese scholar on North Korea, told The Hindu in an interview.

No policy change

“Our policy towards the Democratic People's Republic of Korea [DPRK] will not change. We will insist that we really want peace and stability and denuclearisation. A concern is that South Korea, Japan and the United States may all be worried now [about stability in North Korea], but China will continue to cooperate with those countries.”

China has already indicated it will continue supporting the North, which it views as a crucial strategic buffer, with financial and food aid.

Officials were thought to have assured Kim Jong-il earlier this year that they would back his son and designated successor, Kim Jong-un, when they both reportedly travelled to China on a secretive visit. But even Beijing, Pyongyang's closest ally, appeared to have been taken by surprise by news of his death on Monday. The Foreign Ministry, in a statement, said it was “shocked” to learn of his death.

The statement also said China would continue working towards “consolidating” ties and “to safeguard peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and in the region.”

The Chinese government has stressed the closeness of its unique relationship with the DPRK, describing the North Korean leader, widely reviled abroad for his autocratic rule, as “a great leader of the DPRK people and a close friend of the Chinese people”.

While Chinese officials expect the political transition to be smooth, viewing it as being worked out well in advance of Mr. Kim's death, they are concerned whether the North's economic troubles will spill over into China's borders.

Meltdown worry

The real worry for China now, analysts said, was whether the North would be able to stave off a looming financial meltdown, with increasingly frequent reports of widespread food shortages.

China has, in recent months, been pressing North Korea to consider adopting a Chinese-style “reform and opening up” policy.

On recent visits to China, Kim Jong-il and other North Korean officials have been taken on tours of factories and special economic zones, with officials saying they were keen to learn how to implement reforms back home.

But following Kim Jong-il's death, any likelihood of that appears dim, said analysts, with the North now likely to focus on ensuring internal political stability.

“We hope North Korea will have a soft landing, and the opportunity to reform and open up,” said Ms. Gong said. “But the problem, I think, is that it is now very difficult to say whether that will happen.”

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