President Hu Jintao sent an effusive congratulatory note to North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Il, on his recent guest’s reelection as general secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). That the Chinese leader would not have sent fraternal felicitations would have been as unexpected as the unopposed Dear Leader not winning his rubber-stamp election. But Hu slipped in personal congratulations alongside those of his Party’s, giving more credence to the school of thought that Hu’s guiding hand is behind the leadership succession in North Korea that is seeing Kim’s youngest son Kim Jong Un — The Brilliant Comrade — emerging as the heir apparent.
It is not the who so much as the how that concerns China (or more accurately the Party, for it is the party not the foreign ministry that runs China’s North Korea policy). Beijing’s primary interest is to have a stable neighbour. Beijing fears both an economic collapse of North Korea, the so-called East German problem — a flood of refugees flowing across the border in to northeastern China to escape political and economic chaos, and also a rogue act of foreign policy by the military by whatever means. The sinking of a South Korean corvette by a North Korean torpedo earlier this year was greatly concerning to Beijing despite its public stance in refusing to join the international condemnation of Pyongyang for the attack. Beijing doesn’t like surprises in international affairs, and its erstwhile ally is nothing if not unpredictable.
To deal with both worries, Beijing’s plan for North Korea is to have it open and reform its economy (as Hu advised Kim to do on his last visit) and for the WPK to exert greater control over the now more powerful military — not too dissimilar from the Chinese Party’s own path decades back. Beijing would then put a protective aid, trade and diplomatic arm around North Korea to give it a chance to put its plans into action. In return, Kim Jong Il gets Beijing’s support for his dynastic succession (below, from left The Great Leader, The Dear Leader and The Brilliant Comrade). That succession looks to be having to be hurried forward faster than Kim would like because of his ill-health. Neither Kim nor Beijing would like the military to step into the power vacuum that would be created by Kim shuffling off too soon to join his father, the Great Leader, in that great Socialist republic in the sky. So the accommodation benefits both sides.
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All this is to a certain extent speculation, given how little is actually known about the inner workings of both Pyongyang and the Hu-Kim relationship (albeit, we trust, informed speculation). There were plenty of signs of the WPK moving to exert greater control over the military at the conference that reelected Kim Jong Il — only the third such one in the WKP’s 62-year old history and first for 44 years. Kim Jong Un, a 27 year old with no military experience, was appointed a four-star general and deputy chairman of the Party’s Central Military Commission as well as joining the Politburo. His aunt, whose husband, Chang Song Taek, is head of the National Defence Commission, was also promoted to the rank of general as were four others from the Party. Revisions to the WPK’s charter stressed the need to buttress party leadership over the military “so that the WPK may be strengthened in every way and its leadership role further increased”.
A high-level North Korean delegation has already been dispatched to Beijing to brief the Party leadership there on the WPK’s conference. China’s other neighbours and the U.S. would likely be less sanguine about arrangements that would effectively put North Korea under China’s suzerainty, adding a new complication to the possible eventual unification of the Korean peninsular. But, equally, they might consider it the least of the available evils, a price to be paid for stability in the region and removing the Most Dangerous Country in the World tag from North Korea.