As North Koreans mourn the loss of their leader, Kim Jong Il, Chinese officialdom is joining in. One Chinese newspaper on Tuesday ran the banner headline “Goodbye, Old Friend,” while others talked about the intimate relationship the two countries enjoyed. Chinese state-run television ran plenty of footage of sobbing North Koreans.
It was a little much for one observer, who remarked on a Chinese newspaper website: “Paying respects to a leader doesn’t have to go so far. After all, everyone will die one day.”
But for China’s leaders, somber condolences were the order of the day. On Tuesday, President Hu Jintao visited the North Korean embassy in Beijing, as did his likely successor, current Vice President Xi Jinping, other officials and other visitors, carrying bouquets of white flowers. Foreign journalists, looking for visas to cover Kim Jong-Il’s funeral, were told to come back next year.
North Korea has turned inward for 13 days of mourning, limiting the flow of traffic across its usual trading point with China, at Dandong. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu delivered a statement from China’s top leadership.
“We are shocked to learn that DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — North Korea’s official name) top leader comrade Kim Jong Il passed away and we hereby express our deep condolences on his demise and send sincere regards to the DPRK people,” the statement read. “Comrade Kim Jong-il was a great leader of the DPRK people, and an intimate friend of the Chinese people, and he had made important contributions to developing the DPRK’s socialist cause and promoting good-neighborly and cooperative relations between China and the DPRK.”
Kim didn’t always cooperate as China might have liked. He resisted calls to enact economic reforms; he made sure years of nuclear disarmament talks that China hosted went nowhere; and much to China’s dismay, he launched missiles or carried out nuclear tests whenever he wanted to get international attention and food aid.
North Korea gets most of its food and fuel from China, and that’s become more important this year, with about six million North Koreans – a quarter of the population — in need of food aid, in the face of a bad harvest and UN sanctions. North Korea also supports a million-man army, which needs its food and fuel, too.
“I think it’s clear that the sanctions had been biting, that they’d taken a toll, that the North has definite cash-flow problems,” says Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, the International Crisis Group’s Northeast Asia project manager. “And I think North Korea is fundamentally uncomfortable with having to rely on China. Ideally, they’d like to be able to balance out that dependency with the Russians, with the Americans, with any other European country, some of which are already quite engaged with North Korea.”
It may be with the expectation of food aid that North Korea announced on Saturday – around the same time Kim Jong Il is said to have died – that it would suspend its uranium enriched nuclear weapons program, a central U.S. demand for the resumption of disarmament talks.
Whether such talks would lead anywhere is another question. Brian Myer, an international relations professor at Dongseo University in Seoul, told the BBC he doesn’t expect new leader Kim Jung-Un to veer significantly from his father’s path when it comes to North Korea’s nuclear program.
“I think he’ll want to make progress, not in the sense we would use, but for him, I think progress means further weaponizing the nuclear potential he has,” Meyer said. “North Korea really has no reason to disarm or to make peace with the United States, because if it were to do so, it would really lose all reason to exist outside South Korea as a separate state.”
Kim Jong Il, and his father Kim Il Sung before him, kept power by isolating the North Korean population, and feeding it stories both of North Korea’s superiority to all other places, and of the imminent threat of attack from external enemies — the United States, especially. That’s justified the expense of keeping a huge army, and maintaining a “military first” policy. But with ever more North Koreans succeeding in traveling to China and coming back with stories of the outside and pirated DVDs, a growing number of North Koreans are getting a clearer idea of what the outside world is like, and how much they’re suffering by comparison.
Still, power remains in the hands of the elites, with the Kim family at the core. And North Korea’s nuclear program provides insurance that North Korea won’t become the next Libya or Iraq. It’s also a bargaining chip for aid, which has proven lucrative over time, especially to North Korea’s small core of elites. The urge for those elites to protect their privileges – while much of the population suffers – may help the succession go smoothly, in the short run. Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt of the International Crisis Group said the concern is what might happen later.
“Our greatest worry would be that if Kim Jung Un or his closest supporters feel insecure or weak enough, if for example, there were splits in the leadership, they might feel they have to demonstrate their military prowess, and we might go back to a phase of seeing more provocation,” Kleine-Ahlbrandt said.
But for now, the focus is on presenting a united front, mourning the dead, marking the passing of one era and the beginning of another. Whether the young third-generation heir to a socialist dynasty can do any better for his country than his father did, China’s leaders stand ready to offer help and guidance.
On Tuesday, they invited Kim Jung-Un to visit, once a decent interval has passed.