China Keeping Close Eye on North Korea


According to South Korean media, China’s military is ramping up its presence near the North Korean border. Last week, the 39th Army of the PLA reportedly held training exercises on the border with the purpose of  conducting “intensive research in bitterly cold conditions, issues of maneuvering, camouflage, military quarters, command and operations, and for the unit to raise operational skills across the board,” according to an unnamed PLA official.

Such training has been held before, and may not be connected to the recent upheavals within North Korea. However, there are also reports that China has increased its border security forces in a reaction to the ouster of North Korean leader Jang Song-Thaek. According to an unnamed source, armed police have been assigned to patrol border posts, in part reflecting a concern that events in North Korea will lead to an increased number of refugees attempting to enter China.

The military aspect is just one part of China’s cautious reaction to the news that Kim Jong-Un had his uncle removed from power. While China is North Korea’s only major ally, Chinese leaders can still be caught off guard by the unpredictable actions of the North Korean leadership. The removal of Jang, who had been the major intermediary between China and Kim, was as much of a shock to China as it was to any other country.

China has long pushed North Korea to follow the Chinese path of development — economic reform and opening up without political change. Such changes would increase North Korea’s economic stability, leading to increase national stability as a whole. A self-sufficient North Korea would be less of a headache for China, particularly if North Korea’s entrance into the global economic system forced the leadership  to be more pragmatic regarding their nuclear ambitions.

Jang seemed to be China’s best hope for seeing this economic transition take shape in North Korea. Jang visited China in August 2012, where he met with then-President Hu Jintao and then-Premier Wen Jiabao. The main topic of discussion was economic reform, which resulted in agreements for China and North Korea to cooperate on “special economic zones” along their border.  Despite this, the projects stalled and now, with Jang gone, their fate is entirely up in the air.

In addition, one of the many charges leveled against Jang was the accusation that he committed “such acts of treachery as selling off precious resources of the country at cheap prices.” This is almost certainly a reference to North Korea’s exports of iron ore and other minerals to China. Kim Jong-Un had complained previously that North Korea’s resources should be sold for higher prices; now he has labeled Jang’s opposing view “treachery.” This doesn’t bode well for Chinese mine operators in the region, which in turn means North Korea could jeopardize one of its more steady sources of income.

As Zhu Feng, professor of international relations at Peking University, told the New York Times, Jang was “the man China counted on to move the economy in North Korea. This [Jang's dismissal] is a very ominous signal.” Chinese media have also relayed reports from South Korea that the North Korean leadership has begun exporting gold reserves to China. According to the reports, this could be a sign that North Korea is facing its most serious economic crisis since the country’s founding. While speculative, the reports do indicate a concern within China that there may be a crisis on the horizon in North Korea.

On other hand, an article in People’s Daily, reprinted by Sina News, scoffed at the idea that Jang’s ouster represented a break with China. Such a move would cost North Korea its only consistent source of political and economic support. “For Kim Jong Un,” the article said, “this would be a suicidal choice.” When asked at a press conference how the removal of Jang from power would affect Northeast Asia, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei seemed unconcerned, replying that “this is the internal affairs of the DPRK.” Hong added that “China will stay committed to promoting its traditional, friendly and cooperative relationship with the DPRK.”

Such comments in state media and by Chinese officials show that China is not over-thinking how Jang’s ouster might affect China-DPRK relations. However, as always, Chinese leadership is keeping a watchful eye on North Korea’s own internal stability. Should Jang’s ouster come to mean that Kim is now fully in control of the country, China will have no problems with it. If instead the move causes political upheaval and/or an economic crisis, China wants to be prepared.

As the headline of a Global Times editorial read, “North Korean stability suits China’s interest” — and all other concerns are secondary. “As a friendly neighbor,” Hong went on, “we hope to see national stability, economic development and people living in happiness in the DPRK.” Jang’s ouster is potentially bad news for all three categories. China will keep a close eye on the situation, but at the moment is far from panicking.

Note: Since this article was written, reports have confirmed that Jang Song-Thaek has been executed in North Korea. The Diplomat has more.
December 14, 2013 at 05:51

Can someone do a head count to see if anyone in the wumao Army is purged during these days? I know some names like John Chan was “purged” long time ago.

December 14, 2013 at 02:36

China is clearly having a WTF moment with North Korea. Beyond the standard “friendly nation, internal affairs” tag, they express “hope” that N. Korea stays stable and that the economy doesn’t collapse. They give widespread coverage to South Korean fears about the situation – almost certainly a surrogate for their own concerns. They are not presenting a North Korean perspective at all.

Little Helmsman
December 13, 2013 at 05:10

It seems that every thug regime in the world always has a Chinese connection! Let’s see, China was the only backer of the Khmer Rouge during its murderous rule. China is the only ally of the DPRK, which runs the most barbaric, Stalinist system in the world. Google North Korea’s labor camps.

Why are all commies such sickos?

December 13, 2013 at 07:01

I guess communism in its purest form is a grand ideal, but it can only operate to its full potential if human defy their nature: greed and selfishness. To make it happen, you need a perfect governing body that function mechanically solely for the benefit of the commune aka, impossible. So, it usually ends up amplifying these two traits especially in its leaders, and ends up looking like a perverse mockery of the original ideal – aka Stalin’s USSR, Mao’s Cultural Rev China, the 3 Kim chubs’ gulag of a country. Thankfully China is changing, but NK is not, sticking to the old pure Commie way. So yeh, old school Commies are “sicko”s for a lack of better word. New ones? Not sure. Wait and see.

December 14, 2013 at 09:05

This really annoys me.
You’re mistaking Communism with an extraordinarily literal ‘dictatorship’ of the proletariat – Socialism.
Communism is a classless society, and so can’t have a government.
Also, I’m pretty sure NK don’t even refer to themselves as Communist anymore

December 13, 2013 at 10:37

If we’re looking at historical support for thug regimes, the US has supported many in the past. Iraq, Iran, Stalinist Russia, Pinochet’s Chile, Argentina during the junta, El Salvador, etc.

Morality is a rare bird in foreign policy.

December 14, 2013 at 05:46

I admit that the US is far from perfect when it comes to foreign policy but if we have to choose the lesser of two evils, which one you choose to live with, TDog? are you willing to leave the US and go to live under Chinese communist rules?

Tom Dooley
December 13, 2013 at 21:18

Ideology seldom matters, only National interest!
The USA, past and present, befriended dictators of all shapes and colors when it suits its national interest.
Now, it has ditched Israel, a not so long ago best friend in the middle east and cosying up to Iran.
Seems, its think tanks has called for a change of plan.

December 13, 2013 at 04:30

Under the pretext of securing unrest in NK and safeguarding the NK nukes, PLA maybe poised to move in and “secure” NK.

December 13, 2013 at 14:26

If NK is not ‘secured’, its nuclear weapon could be used by some renegade in the NK army to drop at South Korea and U.S If the bomb is destined for Japan, who really cares.

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