Reporting from Beijing — China's leaders offered up effusive words of praise for North Korea on Friday at the conclusion of a secretive five-day visit by ailing leader Kim Jong Il.
Beijing appeared to be going out of its way to be gracious to Kim, a deliberate signal that it is not ready to pull the plug on its relationship with the wayward and often embarrassing ally. The Chinese government also might have wanted to bolster Kim's regime at a time of increasing speculation that the regime could collapse.
Breaking days of silence about Kim's visit, Chinese President Hu Jintao released a statement through the official Xinhua news agency calling the traditional friendship between China and North Korea a "common treasure of the two governments, parties and peoples."
"It is the historical responsibility of the two sides to push forward their friendship with the progress of the times and from generation to generation," Hu said in the statement.
For his part, Kim apparently offered only vague expressions of interest in returning to long-stalled international talks on its nuclear program. Although South Korea's Yonhap news service said Kim had said he would return to the bargaining table at some point, the Chinese said only that "the North Korean side is willing, together with all parties, to discuss favorable conditions for restarting the six-party talks."
Indulging Kim's penchant for privacy, the Chinese kept Kim's visit—his fourth since 2000—out of the tightly controlled media here until Kim was safely on his way home in his armored train. Footage released Friday showed a thin, balding Kim, wearing a khaki leisure suit, shaking hands with Chinese leaders at the Great Hall of the People. Other images showed him on an excursion with Hu to a high-tech zone in Beijing.
Kim also met with a long list of other senior Chinese officials, with the emphasis on ties between the ruling parties, China's Communist Party and North Korea's Workers' Party. Despite the positive tone taken by China's leadership, public sentiment here concerning North Korea has been shifting.
One recent poll showed the percentage of Chinese viewing North Korea positively plunged over the last year from 42% to 24%, a drop that brought support for North Korea to its lowest level in four years. The survey was conducted by GlobeScan/PIPA and released last month by the BBC.
Outright disdain was expressed by some Chinese Internet users who organized a "Get Out of Our Country" campaign on Twitter.
"Kim Jong Il—stop messing around. China won't fight a war for you anymore," read one posting on the web portal Sina.com, referring to China's intervention on North Korea's behalf in the 1950-53 Korean War.
"I am baffled why fatty Kim always receives treatment that is even higher than a head of state every time he comes to China," complained a writer on another online forum.
This week's discussions reportedly focused as well on Chinese investments in North Korea. China recently signed a 10-year lease for a port in the northeastern city of Rajin and a state-run company in Dandong, China is planning to lease two islands in the Yalu River for a special economic zone.
Kim, 68, is recovering from a stroke and also suffers from kidney disease and possibly other illnesses. He is said to be grooming his youngest son, Kim Jong Eun, as his successor, another possible topic of discussion with Beijing during this week's meetings.
Tommy Yang of the Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.