Beijing is ready to abandon Kim Jong-un following the shock execution of his uncle and in view of the fact that the nation has lost its economic, strategic and military value for China.
It considers Kim, just 30 years old, unfit to rule a country with nuclear weapons and a standing army of 1.1 million, and would prefer as its leader one of three elder statesmen with whom it has interacted over many years. Jang Song-thaek was one of the three.
In a scene reminiscent of Stalin’s Soviet Union, Jang, 67, was removed by two men in uniform from a meeting – shown on national television – and executed on December 12. The government said that he had committed anti-revolutionary and factional acts and obstructed the nation’s economic affairs.Jang was in charge of economic cooperation with China and advocated a limited opening of the economy on the Chinese model.
To extend a purge against him, Pyongyang ordered its business representatives in China, principally in Dandong and Shenyang, to return home; they are suspected of being very close to Jang and are likely to be replaced by new people the new regime considers more loyal.
Beijing holds Kim’s future in its hands. According to figures from South Korea’s Trade Investment Promotion Agency, China accounted for 88 percent of North Korea’s trade last year that was worth US$6 billion.
Exports to China, mainly coal, minerals and fish products, were worth US$2.4 billion and imports from China were at US$3.6 billion, including grain, fuel, consumer goods and fertilizer. China accounts for 90 percent of the fuels consumed by North Korea, 80 percent of the consumer goods and 45 percent of the grain.
Since the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994, Beijing has urged Pyongyang to follow its example of economic reform, set up special zones for foreign investment, reduce its enormous military spending in favor of projects to improve living standards, and abandon nuclear weapons. The Korean Workers Party could thus improve the economy and remain the only party.
Kim Jong-il, who succeeded his father, did not follow this advice, nor has Kim Jong-un. Both have made military and nuclear spending a priority.
In the last 30 years, North Korea’s value to Beijing has fallen dramatically. In an era of long-range missiles, aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines, it is no longer the frontline of China’s defense. Beijing has become a close economic partner of South Korea.
North Korea has no economic value to China, except the Rason economic zone in the far northeast, which provides a warm-water port for firms in northeast China and could be a cheaper alternative than shipping goods through Dalian, Yingkou or Tianjin. The infrastructure is so poor that Chinese firms have to build the piers and power stations.
The country used to be part of a global struggle between Communism and capitalism, a conflict long over. Beijing no longer needs Pyongyang’s vote at the United Nations. Nor does South Korea want to take over the north, because of the Pharaonic costs of rebuilding it and bringing its 23 million people into the 21st century.
China does not fear reunification. “No matter who takes over whom, a unified Korea is good for China,” said Zhang Liangui, a professor at the Central Party School in Beijing, in a television program on December 18. Zhang is China’s most prominent expert on North Korea.
“Do not worry; after unification, the South Koreans will expel the American soldiers,” he said. “They are only there to protect them from the nuclear threat and the North. Once this threat is removed, they will have to leave.”
The first generation of Communist leaders had affection for Kim Il-sung, who attended secondary school in Jilin and, like them, fought the Japanese in World War Two. But this sympathy did not extend to his son and even less so to his grandson, whom Chinese call ‘Fat Kim’.
Since taking power in December 2011, he has repeatedly asked to meet the Chinese leaders, in Beijing or Pyongyang, but been refused. They consider that he is too young, inexperienced and unqualified.
Instead, they have continued to receive veteran leaders, including Jang, Kim Yong-nam, chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, and Choe Ryong-hae, vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission. They consider men of this rank and experience the proper rulers of North Korea.The execution of Jang is both part of a domestic power struggle and also a sign of anger against Beijing.
‘Fat Kim’ has been very foolish to alienate his country’s only ally and key trading partner. It is a mistake that is grave and may prove fatal.