Kim Jong Il’s Whistle Stop Tour in China by Jeremy Paltiel

[Was the recent visit by Kim Jong Il to China a resounding failure, as reported in the South Korean press? CanKor Brain Trust member Jeremy PaltielProfessor at Carleton University in Ottawa, summarizes his take on the trip based on Korean and Chinese sources. –CanKor.]

The woman in a yellow jacket is thought to be Kim Jong-il’s fourth wife Kim Ok at a banquet in the Great Hall of the People in Bejing, 25 May 2011. (Captured from CCTV Yonhap)

Kim Jong-Il’s third tribute mission to his Chinese patron in less than a year took place between May 20 and May 26. Once again, the head of North Korea’s Kim family holding company toured sites of China’s economic success in Jilin, Heilongjiang and Jiangsu provinces, and met with all the members of the Standing Committee of the CCP Politbureau. Chinese media did not give any special reason for this unofficial visit but instead carried the speculative reports coming from South Korean media outlets. As Chinese official media normally do not carry news of Kim’s official tours until he has safely crossed the frontier of his own country, this quaint courtesy to Kim’s sensibilities was undermined this time around when the People’s Daily sister publication Global Times carried a report citing “South Korean sources” that Kim Jong-il was indeed in China.

While there was much speculation that Kim was seeking to pave the way for his third son Kim Jong-Un’s succession, newly-minted General did not accompany his father. Instead, Kim Jong-il was accompanied by his brother in law Jang Kai-Taek, and more unusually his current consort,Kim Ok whose picture surfaced at the Beijing banquet, seated next to Hu Jintao’s top foreign policy advisor, Dai Bingguo. (See Kim Jong-il calls for early resumption of six-party talks.)

Some Korean media sources speculated that the DPRK leader was seeking new weapons systems, including advanced aircraft, but apparently this request was rebuffed. (See Kim Jong-il’s China Trip Turns Sour.) The consensus was that Kim was seeking increased economic assistance especially with respect to the Ra-song development zone and the newly opened Hwanggumphyong island development zone in the Yalu River between the North Korean City of Sinuiju and opposite the Chinese city of Dandong. (See N. Korea, China break ground on their joint economic zone.)

Speculation that the visit did not go according to Kim’s expectations was accompanied by some pieces of circumstantial evidence. First, that Kim attended his farewell banquet in Beijing with a restricted entourage out of keeping with the large and impressive assemblage of the CCP’s top leaders. (See Miffed Kim Jong-il Pares Down Entourage for Meeting with Hu.) Second, that Kim refused to attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony marking the construction of the Hunchun –Rajin highway, the centre-piece of the Rasong development zone from the perspective of the Chinese.

What this seems to indicate is that Beijing declined to commit further central resources to Kim’s economic development plans, preferring to leave the initiative to Jilin province which hopes to use the Rason ports as an outlet on the Japan (East) Sea to end its isolation as a landlocked province, and commercial Chinese interests, which are mainly interested in exploiting the DPRK’s mineral wealth and its potential as a low-cost assembler of Chinese goods. (This is what is implied in Premier Wen’s remarks to Kim Jong-Il. (See Chinese premier meets Kim Jong Il.) There is some speculation that Chinese economists were sceptical of the commercial viability of the Hwanggumphyong zone.

Two pieces of circumstantial evidence appear to confirm that Kim did not get all he wanted on the political and military fronts. First, only the North Korean side made reference to this year being the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the PRC-DPRK Treaty of Friendship, Mutual Assistance and Economic Cooperation. Second, only the North Korean side made repeated reference to the DPRK-PRC generation to generation friendship. Hu Jintao made reference to the phrase, but only as citation from Kim Jong-il. (See or in English, Hu Jintao met in Beijing with Kim Jong-il.) This indicates that Beijing takes note of but declined to bless Kim’s succession plans. The fact that China’s elder statesman, former General-Secretary Jiang Zemin failed to meet with Kim when he visited his hometown of Yangzhou, only adds to this impression. The former discrepancy indicates that China maintains its denial that the DPRK is its military ally. In return, North Korean media failed to echo Chinese reports that a consensus was reached on the early resumption of the Six-Party Talks.

All in all, if Kim Jong-il hoped to thumb his nose at South Korea and its Western allies by demonstrating his intimacy with China’s rising power, the visit must be judged negatively. This was reinforced just a day or so back when at the Shangri-la summit in Singapore China’s defence minister, Liang Guanglie made the unusual disclosure in his speech that China has been trying to persuade the DPRK not to engage in “rash military adventures”. (See North Korea playing with fire.) Kim’s visit demonstrated above all else his lop-sided dependency on an ambivalent but courteous China.

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