Tag Archives: Kim Jong Un

Kim’s Dangerous Gauging Game With Beijing

Beijing’s pubic reaction to North Korea’s shelling of  South Korea’s Yeonpyeong island has been, not unsurprisingly, muted. It has expressed concern and called for both sides to show restraint but said little more. In that regard, the situation is similar to the torpedoing of a South Korean naval vessel in March. Beijing then refused to join the international condemnation of North Korea for being behind the attack, taking advantage of the fig leaf that Pyongyang’s denial of responsibility afforded it.

Yet this latest incident provides a sterner test of Beijing’s backing for Pyongyang. For one, North Korea has not denied it shelled the island, though it claims that South Korea fired on it first. Chinese state media has been careful not to adjudicate on that claim, describing the incident as an exchange of fire. But Pyongyang may be testing the limits of Beijing’s support just as much as it is testing South Korea and Washington’s support of Seoul.

Beijing’s long-term strategy has been to draw North Korea into its economic orbit, with an assumption that a some point foreign policy will follow as the economics start to make cooperation rather than provocation North Korea’s underlying interest in dealing with its neighbors. Despite the sanctions imposed by Washington, Seoul and Tokyo biting North Korea’s economy, that point is still far off. Meanwhile, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Il, is gambling that he can rely on China’s continuing support for as long as stability on the Korean peninsula is more important to Beijing than the collapse of his regime, with that stability including the dynastic succession of power to his son, Kim Jong Un. Kim the elder is also gambling that China won’t want to be seen to being pushed by other countries into taking a harder line with him.

Those are both fine lines — for both countries. Beijing won’t want its power and influence in the region to look weak, and especially when it is becoming more assertive in the region, as the recent dispute with Japan shows. Nor will it want the U.S. to have an excuse for keeping a strong naval presence so close to its own waters. Both of which suggests that there are limits to Beijing’s support of Kim. The Dear Leader, who needs to show he remains a force to be reckoned with, may well be trying to gauge  exactly where those limits lie. It is a dangerous game.

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China’s North Korea Policy

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.

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Hu Tells Kim (Yes, He Was There) To Open Up

Xinhua has confirmed the somewhat badly kept secret that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was in China last week, if not that his youngest son and presumed heir, Kim Jong Un, was with him, even though seven North Korean officials on the trip were mentioned by name in the report. The visit, the second by the usually stay-at-home Kim senior to China this year, was described as unofficial.

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Kim (left) told President Hu Jintao when they met in Changchun on Friday that he was hoping for an early resumption of the stalled six-nation nuclear talks that Beijing has been trying to get going again. Not much detail on how or when that might happen.

Hu did, however, during an orgy of fraternal remarks on both sides, take the opportunity to stress to Kim on the basis of China’s experience the importance of economic development and that opening up to the world was an inevitable part of that. To what extent that fell on receptive ears, it is impossible to say, though from Kim’s reported remarks during the meeting, his world may extend no further beyond the Hermit Kingdom than Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces.

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Kim Jong Il Reportedly Back In China

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North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Il is reported to be paying his second visit to China this year. South Korean news reports say he arrived early on Thursday by train with his youngest son and presumed heir Kim Jong Un (left, being shown on South Korean TV). They briefly visited a middle school in Jilin that Kim Jong Il’s father, Kim Il Sung, is said to have attended in the late 1920s, underlining the lineage from Great Leader to next Leader. Where they went after that is not known.

Kim was in China in May, and this latest visit — and its purpose — is unlikely to be confirmed by either side until it is over, as is custom. The ailing North Korean leader might be seeking aid following the recent devastating flooding in his impoverished country, seeking medical aid for himself or having discussions about China’s attempt to restart the six-nations’ talks on North Korea’s nuclear program, though the presence of his son would suggest the succession might be on the agenda ahead of a rare meeting of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party in September to elect a new leadership.

One curiosity is that the trip comes when former U.S. President Jimmy Carter is in Pyongyang seeking the release of an American sentenced to eight years hard labor for entering the country illegally. (Update: Carter succeeded.) Kim’s absence from the country during Carter’s visit would be a bizarre and inexplicable breach of diplomatic etiquette, though bizarre and inexplicable is a phrase never far from events in North Korea.

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