Tag Archives: North Korea

Trade Drives Shifting Alignments Of Northeast Asia

LET US LOOK at President Xi Jinping’s visit to Seoul and Japan’s embryonic rapprochement with Pyongyang in the hard light of commerce. To this Bystander, it is that more than politics that is reshaping the alignments of the region.

China has been South Korea’s leading trade partner for the past decade. It now accounts for a quarter of South Korea’s trade, and a larger share than that of the U.S. and Japan combined. China-South Korea trade will if anything grow, as a result of a forthcoming free trade agreement between the two countries and a new agreement to make more yuan and won directly convertible.

In raw numbers, China-South Korea trade is more than 40 times greater than China’s trade with North Korea, $247 billion vs. $6.6 billion, even though the latter has trebled since 2007 as Beijing has sought to ease Kim Jong Un’s regime back from the brink of Beijing’s nightmare — an economic collapse of the North triggering a flood of refugees across the border into Jilin and Liaoning provinces.

A new generation of leaders in Beijing views Pyongyang differently than its predecessors. More than half a century on from the end of the Korean War, unwavering support of comrades-in-arms just seems outdated and especially now China, South Korea and Japan have become economic powers in their own right. Beijing wants to distance itself from Pyongyang, though not by so much it allows room for Tokyo and increasingly Moscow to step in. It is telling that Xi’s recent visit to Seoul was his fifth meeting with his strongly pro-U.S. South Korean counterpart Park Geun-hye since becoming president though he has yet to visit Pyongyang.

Japan’s latest promise to ease some minor sanctions against North Korea in return for Pyongyang re-investigating abductions of Japanese nationals by North Koreans in the 1970s and 1980s is a sign of how Tokyo is working the new folds in the regional landscape. Continuing concerns about Pyongyang’s nuclear programme in the unpredictable hands of Kim Jong Un will limit how far Tokyo will want to carry its rapprochement, and Washington won’t let it go too far for the same reason.

The North’s nuclear ambitions remain the elephant in the room for China, too. Xi is unlikely to push Kim as hard on this as Park would like. In Seoul, he avoided any sign of support for Park’s criticism of the programme and stuck to Beijing’s line of calling for the denuclearization of the peninsula.

Nor will the U.S. want relations between one of its two main Asian allies and China to become too cosy. On that front, it will take some comfort in the fact that Park rejected Xi’s proposal of a joint celebration of next year’s 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japan at the end of World War II. Every leader in the region has a middle against which he or she needs to play two ends. In contrast to the dangerous eddies of northeast Asian geopolitics, the course of commerce runs swiftly and truer.

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North Korea’s Chinese Or Chinese Knock-Off Drones

REPORTS COMING OUT of Seoul about four North Korean drones that crashed in South Korea raise an awkward question for two Chinese companies. How did what appear to be China TranComm’s SKY-09P and MicroFly’s UV10CAM drones, or knock-offs of same,  end up in the employ of the North Korean military?

South Korean intelligence says the unmanned arial vehicles were programmed to fly from the North over South Korean military installations, photograph them, and then return to the North. The North Korea Tech blog, which did the early work of publicly sourcing the drones, has pictures and more detail.

Both drone models are sold commercially, but should not have been sold to North Korea in contravention of international sanctions against Pyongyang. China TranComm, for one, has denied any involvement. South Korean press reports suggest the drones were imported through middle men in Hong Kong, a well trodden trade route, and then remodeled or possibly copied.

These are not sophisticated machines, and there has been speculation that the North Korean military have been making a version of their own since 2010. The three SKY-09Ps or SKY-09P clones, if that is what they were, found in South Korea crashed because of technical malfunctions while the UV10CAM ran out of fuel.

Pyongyang’s drones have sufficient range, when not falling out of the sky, to reach the south of the peninsula. The fear is that they could be used to carry a deadlier payload than a digital camera.

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Inauspicious Beginnings

A new strain of bird flu and a new strain of Kim. Both unknown quantities and potentially deadly. Not the way any new leadership in Beijing would want to get underway.

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China Concerned At North Korea’s Planned Missile Test

North Korea is like that awkward cousin who is always likely to say something unexpected and embarrassing, like announcing plans to launch a ballistic missile. China has expressed its “concern” about Pyongyang’s plan to test fire a Kwangmyongsong-3 missile between December 10th and 22nd, and called for all sides to “act in a way that is more conducive to the stability of the Korean peninsula.”

What the launch mostly does is dash hopes that North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong Un would be looking to pursue a diplomatic approach to regional security. Instead he seems more like a chip off the old block, seeking to catch his neighbors off balance, much as his father, Kim Jong Il, liked to do.

The proposed launch will coincide with the first anniversary of his death. Kim Jong Un will be hoping to avoid a repeat of the launch of a rocket in April to mark the centenary of the birth of his grandfather, KIm Il Sung, which saw the missile break up shortly after firing and fizzle into the sea in several pieces.

Beijing has acknowledged its long-standing if increasingly trying ally’s  right to peaceful uses of outer space, though within “limitation of UN Security Council resolutions”. No doubt its officials will have rolled their eyes along with the rest of the world at the North Korean state news agency’s assertion that “space technology has become a symbol of [North Korea’s] prosperity.”

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Mr Kim Goes To Beijing, Or Not

North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong Un, wants to make a state visit to Beijing. He has reportedly asked to be invited around the same time as China will be making its own leadership transition. The world’s youngest head of state is hoping for a halo effect, no doubt. The request was conveyed by  Kim’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, in the course of his visit to Beijing last week. This Bystander suspects that Jang didn’t return home bearing a gilt-edged engraved invitation card for his nephew from President Hu Jintao.

The lack of enthusiasm is understandable, even setting aside the question of timing. China wants Kim to pursue economic opening, both as a means to avert an economic collapse of the reclusive and impoverished state, and as a way to access the country’s mineral resources, though that, like the special economic zones that have been jointly set up, are so far more promise than reality. The bigger impediment is Beijing’s displeasure at Kim’s enthusiasm for nuclear  and missile tests. It sees these as an unnecessary international provocation. Nor is it thrilled by the prospect of having a nuclear armed neighbor that has a history of behavior almost as reliable as its missiles. Pyongyang may see its nuclear threat as its only card in the diplomatic game with Washington. China has a better hand and is playing a more complex game.

So far Beijing’s foreign ministry is saying nothing, but then it is the Party not the government that handles relations with Pyongyang. Its young guns don’t see themselves as having much in common with the 20s-something third-generation despot. They are serious players on the world stage, not tin-pot dictators. Nor is their China the China of their grandfathers’ generation, which stood shoulder to shoulder with Kim’s grandfather in the Korean War. If Kim’s North Korea has changed in the ensuing half century and more,  it is, if anything, only for the worse.

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Mrs Kim Revealed

This photo released on July 25, 2012 by KCNA, State media of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), shows Kim Jong Un, accompanied by his wife Ri Sol Ju, inspects an amusement park in Pyongyang, capital of DPRK. The official KCNA news agency confirmed Wednesday that top leader Kim Jong Un has been married. (Xinhua/KCNA)

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s mystery woman is his wife. That would be the wife the rest of the world didn’t know about until North Korean state media confirmed it on July 25th in a report about the couple attending the opening of an amusement park (above). She is Ri Sol Ju. It is not known when the couple married, or if Ri is the North Korean singer of the same name. Or related to Ri Yong Ho, the  army’s chief of general staff and the most senior political figure in the military until he was ousted earlier this month as Kim tightened his grip on power.

There has been intense speculation about the identity of the woman who was first shown to the world on  July 6 sitting next to Kim at a concert in Pyongyang. Ri is now thought to be the 27-year old daughter of a professor and an obstetrician from Chongjin in northeast North Korea, and who is herself a science graduate of the elite Kim Il-sung University. South Korean analysts have suggested that Kim and Ri married in 2009 and have a child, born in 2010. But that is as much speculation as is the discussion of the implications of Ri’s Western dress and hairstyle.

China’s state media have restricted themselves to noting that “South Korean observers say that the recent appearances of the two were meant to cultivate a new image of the DPRK leader and demonstrate the stability of the country”. Note, too, in the picture above, some younger faces and sharper suits than are usually to be found in photographs of Kims published by North Korean state media.

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Beijing’s Wary Watch On A Power Struggle In Pyongyang

The price of Beijing’s support for a dynastic succession in North Korea was always meant to be that the young Kim Jong Un would start to follow a course of economic opening similar to the one China embarked on 30 years ago. That was seen in Beijing as the way to avoid regime collapse sending millions of North Korean refugees flooding into China, and to give Beijing first digs on the minerals of resource rich if dirt poor North Korea.

Such a change was always going to mean a stepping back from the late Kim Jong Il’s policy of putting the military first, the basis of his dictatorship, and reassertion of the primacy of the Workers’ Party over the army. The sudden ousting of Ri Yong Ho as chief of general staff and the most senior political figure in the military following a Workers’ Party meeting convened on Sunday suggests that process is underway.

What is impossible to tell is whether that is Kim Jong Un keeping up his end of the bargain with Beijing, or whether he is ruthlessly tightening his grip on power, just as his father did before him after succeeding his own father, Kim Il Sung. China’s state media reported Ri’s downfall in a terse, neutral tone, suggesting they had no more advanced warning than the rest of the world. Yet the suddenness of the onset of Ri’s purported illness indicates that what ails him is a power struggle in Pyongyang. At 69 Ri is young enough by the standards of North Korea’s ruling elite (with one obvious exception) to remain otherwise in rude good health. But although he was influential in smoothing the dynastic transition from the late Kim Jong Il and acted as a mentor to Kim Jong Un, he has not retained the younger Kim’s confidence. In particular, he is said to have resisted the new leader’s orders to deploy soldiers for economic infrastructure projects, an issue that had become symbolic for the army of the forced retreat from its primacy. (Massive state infrastructure development is straight out of China’s economic development playbook.)

Ri’s position was undermined earlier this year when Kim Jong Un put his own man, Choe Ryong Hae, a former Workers’ Party official with no military background, into the army as a vice-marshall and political overseer. There have been persistent reports of lower level purging of army officers, including some executions of those deemed not to have shown sufficiently loyalty to the new leader. Pyongyang has hitherto maintained its facade of unity. With Ri’s dismissal the first cracks are starting to show publicly. If the political turbulence beneath becomes too extreme, that will cause concern in Beijing, which is already growing impatient with its neighbour, and starting to worry that Kim Jong Un wants to be his own man, not its.

Update: The official KCNA news agency says Hyon Yong Chol has been promoted to vice-marshal. It is not clear if the relatively unknown former general becomes army chief in Ri’s place. Update to the update: State media are now referring to Hyon as the army’s chief of staff.

Further update: Kim Jong Un has been promoted to marshal and thus becomes supreme commander of the army. How at leaves the relationship between the military and the Party remains to be seen, but Kim clearly sits atop both at the apex of power.


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The Mystery Of Kim Jong Un’s Mystery Woman

North Korea’s First Ladies are rare birds. A recorded sighting of Kim Ok in Nanjing last year accompanying the late Kim Jong Il on a trip to China caused quite a stir. Now the Dear Leader’s son and successor, Kim Jong Un, has been spotted in close public proximity to an elegantly dressed young mystery woman (above). Is it his wife? There have been rumours since last year that Kim had married a graduate of the elite Kim Il-sung University. Or is she his personal assistant, as Kim Ok started out with Kim Jong Il? A paramour? South Korean press have speculated she might be Hyon Song-wol, a well-known opera singer, who also happens to be married and dropped out of public sight in 2006. Or even Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Yong, though South Korean press say the sister and the woman have been seen together. Yet so little do we on the outside know about the Hermit Kingdom that we have no real clue.

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Flood And Drought Co-Exist In China

Despite heavy seasonal rains causing floods and havoc across southern China, the north and parts of the center of the country still face severe drought. Officials have warned that crops are at risk on the North China Plain between the Yellow and Huai rivers. More than 4 million people across eight provinces are short of drinking water. The lack of rain extends to the Korean peninsula across the Yellow Sea. The Associated Press reports that North Korea is facing its most extreme drought since records were first kept more than a century ago, threatening already tenuous food supplies.

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China’s Growing Impatience With North Korea

The script was meant to go like this: Beijing would back dynastic succession in Pyongyang in return for North Korea under Kim Jong Il’s son, Kim Jong Un, adopting gradual economic reforms along the Chinese model. That way, China’s erratic and impoverished neighbor would become a more stable political and economic ally, and the threat of millions of starving North Korean refugees flooding across the border into northeast China in the event of the collapse of the Pyongyang regime would be alleviated.

Unfortunately for Beijing, Kim Jong Un has lost the plot.

Relations between North Korea and its only friend in the world have hit rock bottom. Beijing is furious. Chinese state media have given unusual prominence to the Chinese fishermen who were seized in North Korea earlier this month and returned with tales of beatings and starvation at the hands of their captors. That was a rare public embarrassment of Pyongyang by Beijing, which for years has defied world opinion in repatriating North Korean refugees caught in China knowing that they and their families will receive similar harsh treatment once returned.

Beijing has other reasons for its displeasure. North Korea is not only not keeping it side of a bargain but it is also not showing the respect China believes it deserves for being its long-suffering political and economic lifeline. Pyongyang didn’t give Beijing advance warning about the deal it struck with Washington in February for American food aid in return for apparent concessions on missile and nuclear programs. It then brushed aside China’s objections to conducting a rocket test, objections made unusually publicly. Beijing even backed a resolution condemning the test in the UN security council, a forum in which it previously backed all sorts of North Korean nonsense. That the test failed so spectacularly–and stood in such sharp contrast to the success of China’s space program–was a cause of a great deal of quiet satisfaction in Beijing.

China has been getting increasingly irritated by its old ally for some time. Bilateral relations are, unusually with China’s foreign policy, handled on a party-to-party rather than a government-to-government basis. While there is historical logic to the practice, it is becoming increasingly anachronistic. China’s incoming generation of leaders were no more than babes in arms, if that, at the time of the Korean War. The Pyongyang regime, where second generation leadership prevails, aren’t comrades in arms. They are a deadweight dragging on China’s increasing global role and an erratic threat to regional security that complicates relations with the U.S., Japan and South Korea for no very great advantage.

Inexplicable and unpredictable provocation was Kim Jong Il’s way. Kim Jong Un may be trying to show himself to be his father’s son. He is likely egged on by generals who threatened by economic reform. Like all North Korea’s political elite, they have vested interests in the military-industrial complex. This includes the country’s international arms trading business and the companies to which North Korea’s 10-year economic development plan has been assigned for implementation. The military-industrial complex is pretty much the North Korean economy.

The poverty of the rest of the country concerns Beijing even more. Millions of starving North Koreans fleeing a failed state into northeast China constitutes the worst-case scenario. The current crackdown on illegal North Koreans in China and on the organizations who help them should be seen in this light.

Beijing’s long-term strategy is 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. They have evolved in the more than a half century since the Korean war in a way North Korea has not. China now sees South Korea and Japan as frenemies, potential free-trade partners as well as allies of the U.S. to be contained. Kim Jong Un, however, is still 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.

If he is testing the limits of Beijing’s support–as good a guess as any given how little is known about what actually goes on in the highest echelons of the Pyongyang regime–he is playing a dangerous game, albeit one learned from his father. Kim Jong Il, however, was adept at calibrating the risks. Kim Jong Un may be too inexperienced to do so.  He may particularly be miscalculating China’s opportunity cost from being seen to be beholden to Pyongyang: a diminution of its credibility as a regional or world power. Beijing still looks after its old friends, but not unconditionally. Beijing may have changed more than Kim Jong Il and the rest of the power elite in the Hermit Kingdom realize.

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