HANOI (Reuters) - North Korean head of state Kim Yong-nam began a visit to Vietnam on Wednesday in which he is expected to seek food aid and diplomatic support for his hungry country from one of the world's few other communist states.
Arriving in Hanoi on a special Air Koryu flight, Kim was the most senior North Korean to visit in more than 40 years. He will stay three days before heading to Vietnam's communist neighbor Laos and formerly communist Cambodia.
His tour of the rice-rich region comes ahead of a key regional security forum in Hanoi this month at which tension on the Korean peninsula is expected to be high on the agenda.
Diplomats and analysts believe securing food supplies will top Kim's agenda but he is also expected to put Pyongyang's case ahead of the July 25 meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).
Kim told Vietnam's President Tran Duc Luong after a welcome from a military honor guard the relationship between Vietnam and North Korea (news - web sites) had ''very deep roots'' and had ''not been affected by the changes of the world situation.''
''It's moving forward,'' he said.
Nevertheless, analysts say Kim is likely to be disappointed by the degree of practical support Vietnam will offer to ease North Korea's food crisis, despite statements from both countries recalling communist solidarity during the Vietnam War.
Carl Thayer, a regional expert at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii, said the two countries had in the past bartered Vietnamese rice for North Korean weapons.
RICE AND WEAPONS
Vietnam would still be interested in Soviet-pattern weapons to resupply its forces, but would be willing to give only ''symbolic and token amounts'' of rice as straight aid, he said.
Rice traders said one vessel was currently loading 5,500 tons of Vietnamese rice for North Korea in Ho Chi Minh City.
Thayer said Hanoi would be hoping during Kim's visit to find ways to foster progress on the Korean issue at the ARF, something that would boost its diplomatic prestige.
Ties between the Koreas have become strained again a year after a landmark reconciliation summit between South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
Dialogue, social exchanges and business deals that followed the summit stalled when President Bush took a harder line against the North after taking office in January.
''Korean reunification and reconciliation is not going to happen under the ARF,'' Thayer said, ''but that's a venue where talks could happen. (Vietnam) would be seen to have a constructive role to play in regional security in their own right.''
The fervor of ideology shared by Vietnam and North Korea has cooled in the past decade, during which Hanoi worked hard to establish diplomatic and business ties with wealthy South Korea, now a major investor.
After Pyongyang revealed at the weekend it had sent combat pilots to fight against the United States in the war, Hanoi said it highly appreciated support from its allies, but suggested its ability to reciprocate now could be limited.
''The Vietnamese government and people have real sympathy toward the situation the Korean people are facing,'' a government spokeswoman said. ''However, this depends on conditions in Vietnam and the realistic capability of the country.''
North Korea has been ravaged by natural calamities and famine since 1995 and aid groups estimate up to 300,000 of its people have slipped into China to escape food shortages.
Vietnam is the world's number-two rice exporter and has large stockpiles, but considers the commodity a strategic export item, controlling distribution to citizens even in times of disaster.
Kim was also due to meet National Assembly Chairman Nguyen Van An and Communist Party Chief Nong Duc Manh and to lay a wreath for North Korean war martyrs at a cemetery in Bac Giang province northeast of Hanoi.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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