China Power

When Kim Comes Calling

Kim Jong-il’s trip to China has prompted speculation about bilateral ties and the succession.

I’ve said before that one of the only things about North Korea’s leadership we know for sure is that we don’t really know anything for sure. But it’s still interesting to speculate, especially when it concerns the succession issue.

Bill Powell had an interesting look in Time on Friday on Kim Jong-il’s trip last week to China, his second this year. Kim isn’t exactly a regular overseas traveller, and the fact that he appears to have had his youngest son and presumed successor Kim Jong-un in tow has had some analysts speculating that Kim was looking for, if not exactly approval, then an understanding nod from China.

This talk has been stoked by the fact that North Korea is set to hold a congress of the ruling Korea Workers Party to elect new leaders this month, an event seen as potentially giving an indication of the likely course the succession will take.

As Powell notes, the rules for visits by the North Korean leader are always just that little bit different from when other heads of state come calling. He notes

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‘When any other head of state visits the country, there is the routine fanfare that goes along with it: a greeting at the airport, the strut in front of the honor guard, meetings with senior officials, snippets of which are usually shown on CCTV, China's state owned broadcast propaganda organ.

‘But when Beijing's favourite little dictator comes, it's all secrets and lies: the Foreign Ministry neither confirms nor denies that Great One has come—until he's gone.’

Beijing’s coyness extended to the specific question of whether Kim Jong-un really was in attendance, with Chinese officials apparently responding to the question of whether Jong-un was in China by stating that he was ‘not on the guest list’, rather than denying outright he was there.

Interestingly, the Chosun Ilbo reported that while North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency reported Kim had told Chinese officials that it was their ‘historical mission to hand over the baton of the traditional friendship of the two countries to the next generation smoothly,’ that this wasn’t reported by the official Xinhua News Agency.

The Chosun Ilbo explains:

‘Whenever North Korea has wanted to stress the necessity of dynastic leadership succession, it has cited the need to pass down its strong ties with China to future generations.’

If the North Korean succession is imminent, then it could help explain China’s relative soft touch over issues like the sinking of the South Korean warship the Cheonan. Jong-un is young and inexperienced and there are serious questions about whether he would have any real sway at all. The implications of this uncertainty and the potential for instability are obvious, and China is understandably wary about having its nuclear neighbour melt down.

That said, a senior Chinese official has reportedly hinted for the first time that Beijing believes North Korea was in fact behind the sinking of the Cheonan. In another article, the Chosun Ilbo reports:

‘Xu Jialu, vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, was quoted by participants at a leaders' forum in Seoul as saying in a speech Tuesday, “Even China is concerned about North Korea's Cheonan incident and is well aware of the fact that it hinders peace and stability on the Korean peninsula…We mean this sincerely,” they quoted him as adding.’

Apparently undeterred, North Korea has today vowed to boost military ties with Beijing, with Kim Yong-nam, Pyongyang’s second-ranked official, reportedly telling a visiting commander of the Chinese People's Liberation Army that the bond between the two neighbours had ‘shown great vitality.’