Beijing – At the beginning of May, North Korea’s Great Leader, Kim Jong Il, made a long-anticipated trip to China — his first in more than four years — for talks with Chinese president Hu Jintao.
More than a month prior, a South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan, had been sunk in the Yellow Sea. Some 46 South Korean sailors are still missing and presumed dead. A team of 24 investigators from the U.S., Australia, the U.K., and Sweden assisted the South in identifying the model and origin of the torpedo. They concluded it was North Korean–built, and fired by one of North Korea’s infamous midget submarines.
Beijing denies that there is any connection between the rise in tensions on the Korean peninsula and Kim’s trip, and no officials would confirm to me that this visit was organized to give China a chance to lecture its number-one recipient of economic and food aid to stop causing trouble. “These are two separate events,” says Zhang Qiyue, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
There is a small — and rare — kernel of truth in the official Chinese line. It is not just the sinking of the Cheonan that has Beijing worried about what is happening inside the “Hermit Kingdom.” There are a number of signs that China’s rulers are worried about the Kim regime’s stability in general and the North Korean ruler’s physical condition and mental state in particular. Informed speculation holds that the Chinese leadership wanted to see firsthand to what degree Kim is now mentally and/or physically impaired.
One of the key indicators that Beijing lacks confidence in Kim’s health is that despite the fact that he hasn’t been to China in four years, this journey was called an “unofficial” visit. “Declaring the trip to be an unofficial one shows that there are concrete problems with Kim’s mobility,” says a long-time North Korea–watcher based in Beijing. “Kim is relieved of requirements for reviewing a military honor guard and making other ceremonial appearances. The idea is to limit the need for him to engage in public activities that could physically tax him or — even worse — reveal the full extent of any aftereffects of the stroke he has suffered.”
Very little video was released of the reclusive leader’s visit, but the few fragments seen on Japanese television showed Kim visibly limping when walking, which would indicate that he has suffered permanent physical damage.
Chinese leaders have been reluctant to try to pressure Kim — to play the role of peacemaker between Pyongyang and Seoul — but they recognize that any conflict could cause a breakdown of authority in the North and a resulting flood of economic refugees streaming over the border into China. An implosion of North Korea as a state could precipitate “the mother of all relief operations” — as it has been called by more than one specialist in refugee crises — on the Chinese–North Korean border
Economic conditions in the North took a turn for the worse after the government re-numerated the national currency, the won, last December and removed two zeroes from the value of each denomination. Restrictions on the maximum value of old currency that could be exchanged for new bills wiped out numerous personal fortunes that North Koreans trading in semi-legal private markets had accumulated. More ominously, the move caused a drop in the value of the won against the Chinese Yuan (RMB) — falling from 50 won for 1 RMB to 1,000 won for 1 RMB — and sparked unprecedented protests against Kim’s regime.
Kim brought a larger-than-normal delegation with him, including most of the senior leadership from the ruling Korean Workers’ party. This could mean that, as is his custom when conditions in his country become dire, Kim is asking for some rather substantial assistance from Beijing. However, it has two other possible implications — neither of which is likely to make Chinese leaders feel very secure.
One possibility is that Kim fears a coup; if he travels with all of his senior ministers and advisers, they cannot make other trouble back home while he is away. This possibility indicates that Kim is losing his grip on power. The other interpretation is that the Great Leader cannot handle or pay attention to details to the extent that he used to, and now needs this expanded entourage to handle part of his mental workload.
China’s relationship with the two Koreas has been one of a delicate balancing — which is not made any easier by Kim’s sometimes-erratic behavior. “The Chinese look at Kim like some sort of a crazy nephew,” the specialist in Beijing says. “The kind you keep spending money on, hoping that he will amount to something someday.”
Kim’s 2006 visit illustrated this. His Chinese hosts did their best to show him around and send the subtle message that a little economic reform would go a long way toward keeping his country from falling apart. “They took him to Shanghai so he could see this showcase of Chinese economic prosperity,” a European political analyst based in the famous port city says. “It was very clear what they were saying to Kim. The message was: ‘You can stay in power, but you just have to be more clever about it. You have to start doing a little bit of what we have here.’ But either Kim just did not want to know, or the message went over his head.”
Chinese officials, reportedly, are contemplating taking some steps beyond providing direct aid to North Korea, such as legalizing the trading of currency in the border area and allowing Korean traders (who now must bribe their way back and forth across the border) to legally buy the Chinese yuan at a more favorable rate.
But, despite North Korea’s dependence on China for economic and food aid, Beijing has less leverage on the isolated state than is generally assumed to be the case. “Pressuring the North too much could cause more problems than it would solve,” another analyst here in China says. “For the time being, all Chinese president Hu Jintao and others can do is to continue to prop Kim up economically and try and convince [North Korea] to return to the Six-Party Talks on denuclearization, but it remains to be seen how interested the U.S. and South Korea would be in these negotiations’ resuming under the present circumstances.”
The other unfortunate reality is that the Korea that is most important to China — and has been for some time — is South Korea. Trade between South Korea and China is about $186 billion, compared with $2.68 billion between North Korea and China. More than 50,000 South Korean students are now studying in China, the largest number from any country, but fewer than 1,000 North Koreans are attending Chinese universities and institutes.
When West Germany had to absorb East Germany after the latter’s dissolution in 1990, the “five new states,” the politically correct label given to the former eastern zone, quickly became derisively referred to as the “five expensive states” (this was a play on words; the German words for “new” and “expensive” rhyme). East Germany turned out to be in far worse shape, and ended up costing far more to integrate, than anyone had imagined.
And in a reunified Korea, North Koreans would comprise a greater percentage of the population than did East Germans in reunified Germany. What’s worse is that the disparities in the levels of development, education, infrastructure, and industrial base technology are far greater in Korea than they were in Germany.
Reunification could break the Korean economy. Which creates a situation in which all parties involved have a vested interest in North Korea staying just the way it is — dictatorial, brutal, impoverished, and living off aid that is extorted from its neighbors.
For now, Beijing has little choice but to keep spending money on its crazy nephew. But signs are that this tactic can’t stave off more dramatic measures forever.
— Reuben F. Johnson is an aerospace- and defense-technology expert based in Kiev, Ukraine.