In December 2011, when Kim Jong-un became leader of North Korea, Beijing was full of hope — a young man educated for seven formative years in Switzerland should have a better understanding of the outside world than his father and grandfather who never went to a Western country.
But the dramatic arrest of his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, last week buried those hopes. Jang, who had ranked second in the party, was China’s best friend in the leadership and the best hope it would lead the country on the path it has advocated for 20 years – economy first and military second.What’s more, the humiliating manner of his arrest – a man of 67 being dragged from a public meeting on state television – was reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution in China and the Soviet Union of the 1930s. It showed a dictator in the style of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong.
Officially, China said the arrest was “an internal affair that would not affect bilateral relations.”But its top expert on North Korea, Zhang Liangui, a professor at the Central Party School in Beijing, was more honest.
“North Korea may concentrate its energies again on its nuclear programme … this will have a profound impact on its diplomatic relations and the international environment,” Zhang said. “Jang advocated cooperation with foreign countries. He challenged the ideology of Juche (self-reliance), one reason why he was purged. In addition, he advocated putting economic development first and allowing a wider disparity of income. This forced a showdown.”
Of the Pyongyang leaders, Jang was the one with the closest ties to Beijing. Since joining the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party in 1989, he had visited China frequently. In August 2012, he met then president Hu Jintao and then premier Wen Jiabao, as well as the ministers of the National Development and Reform Commission and the Ministry of Finance.
He was the head of the committee that managed the Rason Economic and Trade Zone and an economic zone on two islands in the Yalu River between Dandong and Sinuiju in North Korea.Jang told Wen: “The DPRK is willing to work closely with China to speed up efforts and cooperation in developing economic zones.”
This is what Beijing wanted to hear. For two decades, it has been telling Pyongyang that it can retain its one-party system and state planning and, at the same time, allow special zones to attract investment from South Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan and other capital-rich neighbours. In this way, it could earn foreign exchange, produce consumer goods for its people and improve their miserable standard of living. China is the world’s best example of successful economic reform without political reform.
Kim Jong-il, who took power in July 1994, was shown the dazzling new factories and R&D laboratories of Pudong, Shenzhen and Tianjin but did not want to hear the message. His policy was “military first”; the largest items in the budget were the military and nuclear and missile programmes.Fearful of economic collapse and a reunified Korea under southern control, Beijing continued to supply its “hooligan” neighbour with consumer goods, grain, fertilizer, oil and other necessities at “friendship” prices.
It protested with increasing intensity at Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests, as a danger to the stability of East Asia, a reason for Japan and South Korea to go nuclear and an enormous waste of scarce resources.
When Kim Jong-il died, Beijing hoped that this would change. It hoped Jang would become the president, perhaps as regent, while the young Kim Jong-un gained experience about government. It considered Jong-un hopelessly unqualified, especially to run a country with nuclear weapons. It knows the nature of the young man better than any other country.
Japanese sushi chef Kenji Fujimoto, the only outsider who has spoken in public about the Kim family, describes a life of luxury of which the wealthiest Russian or Chinese nouveau riche would be proud – all-night parties, imported liquor, foreign women, motor yachts and exotic food like snake and even hippopotamus. He saw Jong-un aged 11 with a Colt 45 pistol strapped to his belt.
According to a report presented in October to the South Korean parliament, the North spent US$646 million on luxury imports in 2012, more than double the annual US$300 million outlaid during the Kim Jong-il era. The spending included pets – especially Chinese Shih Tzu dogs – pet food, cosmetics, handbags and watches.
Jong-un continues the luxury life of his father, with all-night drinking parties and expensive gifts for his family and friends. He is importing two luxury yachts from Britain, about US$10 million each, and building a private ski resort near Wonsan, including imported equipment for artificial snow and ski lifts.
Is such a man going to start the complicated and delicate task of reforming his country’s moribund economy?
The purge of Jang does not mean that Beijing will abandon its “hooligan” neighbour. But it has brought that day much closer.