But there was one detail that would have led at least some faint credibility to Friday’s rumors – the absence of the leader at any events on February 8, which on the North Korean calendar is the anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army. For a young man so obviously determined to align himself with both the soul of the army and its founder, it seems more than a little odd that February 8 would pass without another opportunity being taken to go cheek-to-jowl with the troops. While Kim Jong-un’s absence might be chalked up to modesty in the shadow of his father’s approaching birthday, this, more than notes on the number of cars in Beijing, could serve as “evidence” that something was out of the ordinary in the North Korean inner sanctum.
Regardless,why did China allow the rumor to spread? In a country with such tight internet controls (literally every single micro-post on Weibo has a “report” button attached to it), the story was allowed to play amid all the unresolved questions around Kim Jong-un’s brother, Kim Jong-nam, being in China.
Indeed, China has not only failed to censor speculation around the outspoken (and highly critical) Kim Jong-nam – the government actually allowed a recent Nanfang Zhoumo article about Japanese journalist Yoji Gomi’s book of interviews to be published. Chinese reporters, meanwhile, still have to cede their cell phones to minders when in North Korea.
All this suggests significant strains in China’s relations with North Korea. China has indicated it wants Kim Jong-un to relax the country’s militarism and open up to investment under Chinese protection. And the fact is he’s not doing that. On the Chinese side, there doesn’t appear to have been any real effort to limit Kim Jong-nam’s movements. Indeed, officials seem happy with him posing as the possible face of reform.
Why? The Chinese decided after the second North Korean nuclear test that the gloves would come off in public discussions of the Kim family and, while some concessions were made at delicate times (such as after Kim Jong-il’s death), they seem in no mood to muffle Kim Jong-nam.
This discourtesy won’t make for as exciting headlines as rumors of Kim Jong-un’s death, but it likely does more to chafe North Korean propagandists who have spent their entire careers developing the personality cults of all three ruling Kims. The ruling family will have to watch their backs for more high-speed ambushes, including from their ostensible allies across the Yalu River.
Adam Cathcart is an assistant professor of Chinese history at Pacific Lutheran University and Editor of SinoNK.com.