The main concern among North Korea's neighbours on Tuesday was whether a leadership transition after the death of Kim Jong-il could bring regional instability, either in the form of an assertive new government or as steep economic challenges to the country.
Beijing, the North's biggest source of imports, financial support and food aid, has indicated it will step up engagement with its eastern neighbour in the coming months as it tides over political uncertainty.
Chinese President Hu Jintao, in a rare gesture, visited the North Korean Embassy in Beijing on Tuesday morning to condole Kim's death.
China on Tuesday suggested it would welcome a visit by Kim Jong-un, who was on Monday announced as Kim's “Great Successor.”
“China and the DPRK have always kept up high-level visits, and we welcome the North Korean leader to visit at a convenient time to both sides,” said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Liu Weimin.
Asked if Mr. Hu would attend the December 29 funeral in Pyongyang, he only said the DPRK had “expressed clearly that they would not want foreign delegations at the funeral.”
He added that Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi had spoken to United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, saying that “peace and stability on the Korean peninsula is the common interest of all parties.”
The state-run Global Times newspaper, in an editorial on Tuesday, said China should be “resolute in maintaining the independence of North Korea,” and protect the country during its transition “from external interference.”
“China should be a powerful and secure backer for a smooth transition of power in North Korea,” said the newspaper.
China is likely to step up support to the North through its leadership transition and as the country prepares to grandly celebrate the centenary of the birth of founder Kim Il-sung in April, analysts said.
Kim Jong-il had pledged to establish a “strong and prosperous nation” by April, even as the country suffered from food shortages and economic stagnation under his leadership.
“China will step up support because the situation calls for it,” Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, Northeast Asia project director for the International Crisis Group, told The Hindu .
“China stepped up support this year when Kim needed it. It was likely they will have to step it up anyway as we get closer to the April celebrations.”
While China “does not have infinite funds and patience” when dealing with the North, it was likely to boost support “in the current context,” Ms. Kleine-Ahlbrandt said.
The North's total grain production this year is expected to fall short of the six-million-tonne minimum stipulated by food security experts. Its production is estimated at 4.74 million tonnes, the official China Daily reported.
Chinese analysts have said Kim Jong-il was considering embarking on Chinese-style economic reform and opening up to drive growth. His death has, however, left uncertain what steps the North will take as it battles an economic crisis under a new young leader.
Under Kim, the nuclear-armed state had focused on the security aspect of his “strong and prosperous” declaration, Ms. Kleine-Ahlbrandt.
“Now,” she added, “the focus has to be on prosperity.”