North Korea Monitor

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Kim Jong Il Feels at Home at Chinese Embassy

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Kim Jong Il and other North Korean officials (Kim Yang-gon, director of the United Front Department of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, Kang Sok-ju, first vice-minister of foreign affairs, and Kim Kyok-sik, chief of the General Staff of the People’s Army)  stopped by the Chinese Embassy on Saturday for dinner and photographs. Kim told Chinese ambassador Liu Xiaoming:

“China and (North) Korea are like a close family. I’m very glad to come to the Chinese Embassy. I feel as if I were visiting a relatives’ house….I am sure of your success in the upcoming Beijing Olympics, which is an honor not only for the Chinese people but also for the peoples in Asia and the world (via Chosun Ilbo). “

Ties between China and North Korea have been growing since the North Korean nuclear test. Chosun Ilbo analyzes the strategic implications of these growing ties:

It is believed that Kim’s visit was prompted by North Korea’s strategic need to strengthen its relations with China. Since its nuclear test in September 2006, North Korea had kept a distance from China, but it apparently considered it expedient to restore ties with its closest ally for the sake of aid now Seoul, Washington and Tokyo show signs of strengthening their alliance in the wake of conservative President Lee Myung-bak’s inauguration in Seoul. Other observers said that Kim visited the Chinese Embassy in a bid to strike a balance in diplomacy following a concert by the New York Philharmonic in Pyongyang.

Yang Moo Jin, a professor at Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies, notes that Kim has some very practical reasons for wanting to strenghen ties with China: his regime’s future may depend on it.

“North Korea has no choice but to reinforce its ties with China to avoid diplomatic isolation in case inter-Korean relations freeze and the trilateral cooperation among South Korea, Japan and the United States becomes stronger under the Lee administration. It also has to step closer to making China a patron to provide rice and other aid on behalf of South Korea (via Joongang Ilbo).”

 Professor Kim Yeon Chul of Korea University elaborates on this point:

“If the nuclear problem continues to be in a stalemate and inter-Korean relations are aggravated, the only escape North Korea has (to survive) is through a recovery of its relations with China (see Korea Herald 3/3/08 “N.K. seeks to mend relations with China”).

Interestingly, Pyongyang plans to pay homage to former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai:

Kim said Korean Central TV will air a feature program on former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, who died in 1976, to mark his 110th birthday on March 5. Kim said Zhou and his late father Kim Il-sung enjoyed a special relationship. North Korea set up a statue of Zhou in Pyongyang in 1983.

Zhou, best known as a skillful diplomat, was responsible for bringing Nixon and Kissenger to Beijing in 1972 and for reopening contacts with the West. In his later life, Zhou opposed the Cultural Revolution, becoming a target for the Gang of Four’s propaganda. He was also instrumental in the rise of Deng Xiaoping. Deng Xiaoping, of course, was responsible for Chinese Gaige Kaifang (opening and reform). I wouldn’t want to draw any conclusions based on this alone, but I can’t help but wonder if Kim and company are signaling their support for greater reform and opening to the west.  Perhaps this is Kim’s way of giving tacit approval to the Chinese path.

Meanwhile in Beijing, Kim Gye Gwan stood up Christopher Hill by, despite Chinese attempts to set the two a meeting between the two nuclear negotiators. Hill stayed on in Beijing after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reported fruitful discussions with her Chinese counterpart. According to Kyodo (via Reuters) Hill said Kim was “not ready to meet,” and noted that the North Koreans were “looking at the ideas [the Chinese proposed] and haven’t decided what they want to do,”


Written by nkmonitor

March 3, 2008 at 1:12 am

Dr. Lankov: Chinese Intervention Not So Bad

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Dr. Lankov, writing in the Asia Times, discusses China’s increasingly apparent commercial and geopolitical interests in North Korea(For some background on this theme, see here, here, and here ). That China sees a role for itself in post-Kim Jong Il North Korea is as plain as day.  Already the Chinese are laying the groundwork to ensure that resource-rich NK is a well-established fixture in the Chinese sphere of influence. On the growing economic influence the Chinese wield, Dr. Lankov writes:

While small Chinese merchants, obviously driven by their own initiative, sell consumption goods to the North Korean market operators, big Chinese companies, probably backed by the government, are busily establishing control over the mining industry and making inroads into infrastructure developments.

The countr’s [sic] largest iron ore mine, in Musan, as well as its largest copper mine, in Hyesan, are operated by joint ventures controlled by Chinese capital. Talks about rights to use Korean sea ports are advancing as well, albeit not without delays. And, last but not least, Chinese publications stress that the ancient kingdom of Koryo which in the early centuries of the Christian era controlled what is now North Korea (as well as large parts of the present day northeast China) was, essentially, an “ancient Chinese minority state” – implying that the Korean north has long been an area where China played a special role.

As for a possible Chinese invasion, while such an event remains highly improbable, it is within the realm of possibility. China may set up a pro-Chinese puppet state to ensure Chinese hegemony in the region, and also because the U.S. and South Korea would be unwilling or unable to intervene on their own:

The Chinese might even undertake a pre-emptive operation, without waiting for disaster to strike. The North Korean elite is deadly afraid of unification with the South, assuming that after such a unification they will be held responsible for their old deeds, purged and perhaps even killed (this is unlikely to happen, but being in the habit of killing their own opponents, these people have some trouble in realizing that political defeat does not necessarily lead to a slaughter).

A pro-Chinese government would keep Kim’s officials in place – alive and well they would enjoy an increasingly affluent lifestyle. So, joining hands with the Chinese against the supposed brethren in the South seems to be a logical decision – at least if things get seriously unstable. This makes a pro-Chinese coup in Pyongyang a distinct possibility.

What might be the results of such actions? While Dr. Lankov is quick to point out that while a Chinese invasion/occupation of North Korea is hardly the best outcome, it is far from the worst and could potentially lead to a more open, democratic North:

One should not welcome such a turn of events, of course. However, Chinese intervention, while not being the best available solution, might still open ways for hope – at least in comparison with the present-day gloomy and explosive situation. To start with, the world probably will be unable and/or willing to do much anyway. If a pro-Chinese coup is staged in Pyongyang, the world will face a fait accompli, so all protests will be useless (and easily deniable).

If a chaos erupts in North Korea, the outside world might indeed welcome (and even actively encourage) Chinese involvement. North Korea probably has five to 10 crude nuclear devices, plus a large stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium and a substantial amount of chemical weapons. Internal chaos might produce a refugee crisis on a scale East Asia has not seen since the 1940s. Both are good reasons why dangerous chaos would have be stopped, by force if necessary, but neither US nor South Korea seem well-prepared for this task.


There are few doubts that reforms in a Chinese-controlled North Korea will produce a fast and remarkable improvement in the living standards – much as has happened in Vietnam and China itself. However, if those reforms are undertaken without unification with the South, the North Koreans will not compare their state and their consumption level with those of rich South, but rather with their own sorry past, and as a result they will have less psychological reason for discontent.

As an added benefit, the discontent when it arises will be channeled not against a democratically elected national government but against a regime that will be clearly a dictatorship, forcefully imposed by a foreign power, and largely consisting of Kim Jong Il’s ex-officials – that is, people responsible for earlier abuses and economic disasters. These opportunistic puppets will make convenient scapegoats, and this will mean that ideas of liberal democracy will not become seriously discredited. Meanwhile, the South will be seen as a land of prosperity, beacon of democracy and a truly national polity.

I wonder how a Chinese puppet state  in North Korea would change the balance of power in East Asia? With North Korea’s nukes under the control of a more rational and predictable power, one that would go to great lengths to not upset its own development and internal stability, such might help aussuage a future East Asia arms race and help defuse tensions throughout the region in the long-run. In the short-run, tensions and reawakening of nationalism are a definite possibility, but there would be little any one would be willing or able to do, short of an outright Chinese occupation. It will be interesting to see how all this plays out in the coming years.

(H/T Marmot’s Hole)

Written by nkmonitor

February 23, 2008 at 2:12 pm

Kim-Bap: Kim and Rice to Meet at Philharmonic Concert?

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The Chosun Ilbo is reporting that Kim Jong Il plans to attend the February 26th performance of the New York Philharmonic. The Chosun also quotes Radio Free Asia speculating that Condelezza Rice may also be in attendance. Rice, who will be on the Korean Peninsula for Lee Myung Bak’s February 25thn inauguration, currently has no official plans to fly to Pyongyang but RFA says a change in itinerary is always possible. Quoting the article:

RFA quoted a diplomatic source in Washington as saying the North had announced Kim’s plan to watch the concert, expecting a “corresponding” U.S. top official to come.

This may be State’s last best chance to resolve the current dispute over progress in the Six-Party Talks its way, before hardliners get the upper hand.

Written by nkmonitor

February 14, 2008 at 3:28 am

NK Plays Up to China

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Robert D. Kaplan in an October 2006 article in Atlantic Monthly argued  Chinese designs on North Korea are a bigger threat to the Kim Jong Il regime than American military might ever could be, and that Kim Jong Il rightfully fears China more than the U.S. The publication of recent reports stating that China has contingency plans to occupy the North in the event of chaos south of the Yalu only continue to add weight to Kaplan’s prophecy. Now, in the wake of Chinese envoy Wang Jiarui’s visit to Pyongyang, details are emerging that add even more evidence to this hypothesis. First, Wang rebuked Kim for failing to cooperate with the Six Party Talks:

Wang explicitly voiced dissatisfaction about North Korea’s failure to meet the deadline for the disablement of its nuclear facilities under a series of six-nation denuclearization agreements

Kim retorted with, what the Chosun Ilbo called a “baffling pledge:”

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il caused some head-scratching when he unexpectedly pledged not to break faith with China in a meeting with a high-ranking Chinese official.

Put into proper context, it’s not so baffling. Xinhua (via DailyNK) reports Kim stressing the special ties between the two country’s Communist Parties:

“The friendship between Chosun (North Korea) and China is the most precious property that both parties (the Chinese Communist Party and the Chosun Workers Party) and the senior leaders of our two countries left for us.”

However, it should be mentioned that Kim Jong Il did reject President Hu’s invitation to attend the Olympics in August.

Meanwhile, in the Tumen River Basin, China and Russia are grappling for control over the region’s economic resources and port facilities (via World Tribune):

Farther north along the North Korean border, the port city of Rajin will soon start receiving electricity it badly needs from the Inter RAO UES Company of Russia. “We have no idea what is going on higher up there,” said a Korean-Chinese businessman from Yenben, “but it certainly looks like China and Russia are trying to win Pyongyang to their sides, like the old days.”

Written by nkmonitor

February 4, 2008 at 6:33 am