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Update No: 090 - (25/10/10)

North Korea: Embracing China?
October’s main event in North Korea – at least at this writing, a week before the month ends – occurred on October 10: the 65th birthday of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). For many people 65 is retirement age, but for the WPK it may herald a new lease of life. As NewNations reported last month, since a rare conference on September 28 the Party now has – for the first time in years – a full Central Committee (CC) and Politburo. The next step is to see whether these bodies are reported as actually meeting regularly; they had failed to do so at all since Kim Jong-il took power in 1994 on the death of his father Kim Il-sung.

For its anniversary the Party threw a party, with dancing in the streets of Pyongyang. That was carefully costumed and choreographed, as was what preceded it: North Korea’s largest ever military parade. In a bold and evidently last-minute decision, the “reptile press” – as the official Korean News Agency (KCNA) sometimes calls them – was invited to watch the fun. Foreign journalists lucky enough to be in Beijing rushed to get a visa – never was the DPRK embassy so crowded, nor so quick – and piled onto Air Koryo. In Pyongyang they met rare chaos at the airport, where officials candidly admitted they were not expecting so many. But once downtown they were surprised to find full Internet access: more than they get in China.

The “reptile press” gets a ringside seat
More media-savvy than is sometimes realised, Kim Jong-il wanted the world to witness this mass display of unity – and get its first glimpse of his son and heir Kim Jong-eun, making a second public appearance after his internal debut on September 28. The gamble largely paid off. Reporters could hardly disguise the ‘wow’ factor of being in Pyongyang at all, watching a huge military display in real time as it happened instead of having to comment on recorded footage hours or days later, and seeing the Kims in the flesh. There was a downside. A few spoil-sports noted that the applause seemed a bit forced, as if people’s hearts were not in it: just going through a well-oiled yet well-worn script. But there was no overt sign of dissent.

The dear leader took a risk, though. The whole world saw how ill he looked: limping along the podium, steadying himself by leaning on the balcony for support. This will only boost speculation as to his real state of health, and whether Kim Jong-eun may conceivably face a baptism of fire and be plunged in the deep end (to mix metaphors), rather than the longer – if hardly leisurely – apprenticeship which he would hope for so as to learn the ropes properly.

It is important to stress that Kim Jong-eun’s coming-out, while a key step forward, is only a beginning and largely symbolic. His next challenge will be to prove his mettle in practice, silencing or putting paid to any sceptics who doubt his fitness to inherit the kingdom.

Number one son chucks a spanner
On that front, a hint of trouble ahead came on October 12 when Japan’s Asahi TV aired an interview recorded three days earlier in Beijing with Kim Jong-il’s eldest son Kim Jong-nam: passed over for the succession, as was their middle brother Kim Jong-chol. Regularly door-stepped by Japanese and South Korean media in his quasi-exile overseas, mostly in Macau, Kim Jong-nam has gone at least mildly off-message before: notably in March 2009, when on the eve of a very visible DPRK rocket -launch he told a Tokyo journalist that he understood Japanese worries. That is emphatically not the official Pyongyang position.

This time he stepped firmly out of line, declaring “Personally, I am against third-generation dynastic succession.” His cryptic follow-up – “ But I think there were internal factors. I think we should adhere to it if there were internal factors involved” – does not undo the dissent or shock value. Other comments included: “As a matter of course, I think it was my father who made the decision. As I have had no interest in the matter, I don't care at all.” Well, maybe. Even his professed good wishes contain an implicit barb: “I hope my younger brother will do his best to make the lives of the North Korean people affluent.” A further comment – “For my part I am prepared to help my younger brother whenever necessary while I stay abroad” – seems to confirm that he is practically an exile; and interestingly, still in China.

Not for the first time, Beijing may be playing a double game: with two Kims, as it does with the two Koreas. Formally it accepts Kim Jong-eun as successor; witness the presence on the dais in Pyongyang of Zhou Yongkang, a top Chinese Politburo figure in charge of security. Yet China must also be protecting Kim Jong-nam, if he can give interviews like this.

Ties with China tighten
Zhou Yongkang’s place of honour on the podium is just one sign of the ever tightening ties between North Korea and the only friend it has left. The past month saw a stream of visits in both directions. Those coming from China included, besides Zhou, delegations from the All-China Women's Federation, the Art Troupe of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA), the People’s Daily, and three adjacent provinces in northeast China (on whom more below).

Most recently, on October 22 KCNA reported that a Chinese military delegation led by Col. General Guo Boxiong, vice-chairman of China’s Central Military Commission (CMC), will pay an official goodwill visit during October 23-26. North Korea too has a CMC, and in both countries these bodies have been in the news of late. Young general Kim Jong-eun’s rise as dauphin was sealed by his naming on September 28 as co-vice-chair of the DPRK version.

In a striking parallel (or coincidence) China’s heir-apparent, Xi Jinping, who is expected to succeed Hu Jintao as President in 2012 and who already holds several state and party posts, was appointed to the same job – he shares it with General Guo – on October 18: a year later than originally expected. The WPK CC swiftly congratulated Xi for this “expression of the deep trust and expectation of the CPC and the army and people of China towards him.”

North Korea would like to project Kim Jong-eun and Xi as equivalents. The 57 year old Xi, who despite an elite background has come up the hard way and earned his positions more on merit than via heredity, may be less keen on being bracketed with such a whippersnapper.

The institutional parallel is not quite exact, either. In a fine piece of metaphysics, formally China’s CMC is nowadays two bodies – one state, one party – with identical memberships. Until 1982 it was purely Party, and there existed a separate state organ: the National Defence Commission (NDC). North Korea still has an NDC, the highest organ of state: its members overlap with the CMC but are not quite identical. Thus Kim Jong-eun is not on the NDC; whose co-vice-chairman, his aunt’s powerful husband Jang Song-taek, is not on the CMC.

Acknowledging assistance -
In a helpful coincidence of timing, the 60th anniversary of China’s entry into the Korean War fell on October 19. KCNA ran a stirring headline: “Friendship Forged in Blood in Anti-US War” (October 21). This anniversary was the main ostensible reason for General Guo’s visit. Other special events included a photographic exhibition, a Chinese film week, and performances by the visiting PLA art troupe. Meanwhile a delegation from the Korean People’s Army (KPA) visited China, led by General Pyon Il-son: a hitherto little-known but presumably rising figure who is now vice-minister of people’s armed forces (MPAF).

Relatedly the famous “Arirang” mass games, a must on the tourist circuit and hitherto firmly nationalist in tone, now features a new scene called “Friendship Arirang” which for a change gives some credit to others. As KCNA put it on October 22, the new episode is

characterized by two groups of people. One of them represents the Korean People's Revolutionary Army and Chinese armed units fighting together against the Japanese imperialists during the anti-Japanese armed struggle. The other portrays the Chinese People's Volunteers joining the Korean army and people in the Korean war against the imperialist allied forces' invasion under the banner of resisting America and aiding Korea, safeguarding the home and defending the motherland.

In the scene the performers in Chinese clothes dance with drums of different sizes, ribbons, red flags and other hand props, highlighted by several-dozen-meter-long dragons, pandas and lions.

Their performance strikes the spectators, including Chinese people, with admiration.

The new scene shows that the DPRK-China friendship, forged in blood in the long period of revolution and developed through generations, is everlasting.

- but not its fearful asymmetry
The claimed reciprocity here may stick in some Chinese throats. In truth, the participation of a few thousand Koreans – including a young Kim Il-sung; though the main group was with Mao in Yenan, and Kim later purged them – in Chinese communist anti-Japanese struggles hardly bears comparison with the huge sacrifices made by the fledgling PRC when its troops crossed the Yalu to stop General Douglas MacArthur wiping the DPRK off the map.

After decades of official silence, China’s losses can been quantified. In an article published in June, PLA Major General Xu Yan wrote that nearly 3 million Chinese troops took part in what China still calls the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea. Many never came back. Xu was precise: PLA statistics show that 114,084 troops were killed in military action or accidents, with another 25,621 missing. A further 70,000 died from wounds, illness and other causes, he said. The number of registered war martyrs amounts to 183,108.

A new nuclear test?
Meanwhile North Koreans have been visiting China apace too, with the foreign ministry first off the mark. Hardly had the cheers echoing around Kim Il-sung Square died away than the DPRK’s longtime nuclear negotiator Kim Kye-gwan, newly promoted as first vice-minister, led a delegation on October 12 to Beijing. There followed four days of what KCNA, which chooses its adjectives with care, called “an exhaustive and candid discussion on the DPRK-China relations, the resumption of the six-party talks and the regional situation, etc.”

It added: “The DPRK is ready for the resumption of the above-said talks but decided not to go hasty but to make ceaseless patient efforts now that the US and some other participating countries are not ready for them.” It is indeed true that South Korea and Japan, as well as the US, are not prepared to resume the six-party process – begun back in 2003, but stalled since 2008 – absent clear signals from Pyongyang on two fronts: a serious will to give up nuclear weapons, and some sort of admission that it sank the ROK corvette Cheonan in March.

Neither of these looks imminent. Indeed on the nuclear front the fear is the opposite. Citing unnamed official sources, on October 21 the conservative Chosun Ilbo, Seoul’s best-selling daily, reported signs that North Korea may be preparing for a nuclear test. If true, that would be its third – though a lawmaker of South Korea’s ruling Grand National Party claimed three days earlier that the North already covertly carried out a third nuclear test in May this year.

Washington, Tokyo and Seoul all said they had no information on an upcoming test. But the fear is that North Korea may deem it appropriate to celebrate and confirm Kim Jong-eun’s ascension with a big bang. The hope must be that last year’s nuclear test, widely seen as similarly motivated, will suffice. On October 24 KCNA said the nuclear arsenal “serves as a treasured sword”, adding that Pyongyang was “entirely right when it opted for having access to nukes.” This will not be music to the ears of China’s visiting General Guo. A new nuclear test would infuriate Beijing, and the Kims may hesitate to provoke their patron at this time.

North Korea’s nuclear knot has been intractable for 20 years. The idea may be far-fetched, but might one way forward be for the DPRK to be offered formal protection under China’s nuclear umbrella, just as the ROK enjoys equivalent shelter courtesy of the US? That might be one basis, perhaps the only one, for Pyongyang to dare to give up its “treasured sword.”

Provinces mean business
On the same day as Kim Kye-gwan returned, another more unusual delegation left for China. This was led by Mun Kyong-dok, WPK secretary for Pyongyang and clearly a man to watch. Aged only 53, he is the youngest (alternate) member of the Politburo. On September 30 he spoke in front of 150,000 people, congratulating Kim Jong-il on his re-election as leader.

Wearing his municipal hat, so to speak – in effect he is mayor of Pyongyang – Mun’s team on this trip comprises his ten counterparts in every other region of the DPRK. (All but one of these are the equivalent of provincial governors rather than city mayors, since after various changes most other big cities are now administered under the relevant province.) This may be the first time that all eleven of the DPRK’s top regional functionaries have made such a joint expedition – and they appear to mean business. In Beijing they met Zhou Yongkang, barely a week after his own return from Pyongyang; he looks to be emerging as China’s new point man on North Korea overall. Zhou wished them well, hoping they would “expand exchange with various Chinese regions you're visiting and achieve success from your tours.” At this writing the DPRK delegation is still in China, presumably visiting various regions.

The group went on to visit various factories in northeast China, returning home on October 23.  This looks like a serious effort, not before time, to forge practical bilateral economic cooperation on the ground and at local levels. China will not be impressed if North Korea merely rattles the begging bowl again. Its three border provinces in particular have their own gripes: e.g. in the past the DPRK has not only failed to pay for coal and other goods, but has kept the railway wagons used to deliver them. That sort of behaviour will have to stop.

This regional dimension was already evident in China’s team for the WPK party on October 10. Besides Zhou Yongkang, rather than a cross-section of Beijing’s great and the good this comprised senior Party officials from the three Chinese provinces bordering North Korea: Jilin, Liaoning and Heilongjiang. Before the main event they had a special dinner with their four DPRK counterparts, the WPK secretaries for the border provinces of North Pyongan, North Hamgyong, Ryanggang and Jagang. Several of these are little-known figures newly promoted, the most senior being Jagang’s Ju Yong-sik who met the visitors at the airport. On October 9 a bilateral accord on economic cooperation was signed; no details were given, but again the list of those present suggested that this relates primarily to crossborder activities. At the very least there is a new resolve; it remains to be seen what concretely comes of this.

PUST may start, at long last
China may be the last government left which is prepared to help North Korea on any scale, but against all odds some private benefactors are still hanging on in there. None has proved more resilient than Kim Chin-kyung (James Kim). In 1992 this philanthropic South Korea-born, Florida-based Christian businessman founded Yanbian University of Science and Technology to serve the eponymous ethnic Korean region in northeast China. Its success inspired him to attempt a similar project in Pyongyang. This has not been easy. A suspicious DPRK early on (in 1998) locked him up for a month as a spy, while longstanding US and now also UN sanctions hardly facilitate acquiring computers or laboratory equipment. South Korea, supportive in the ‘sunshine’ era (1998-2007), changed its tune when the conservative Lee Myung-bak took office in 2008. All this has taken its toll. Ground was broken in 2002, but actually starting operations has been announced more than once, only to be postponed. An official “Grand Opening” in September 2009 appeared to be largely ceremonial.

This time it may be for real. Press reports suggest that Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) will open its doors on October 25. Some 200 students at all levels are on campus waiting for the semester to start, while an initial group of 23 professors from the US and Europe arrived in Pyongyang a week earlier. We wish them well.

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