July 30, 2014
The ripples set in motion by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s ever more blatant involvement in fighting in eastern Ukraine have reached the other side of the world, and are lapping on the shores of the hermit kingdom of North Korea.
As the European Union and the United States impose increasingly onerous sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin and his court, and a long term chill in relations with the West appears likely, Moscow can’t be too choosy about the new friends it makes.
In this frigid climate, even the unpredictable, spoiled brat North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the Justin Beiber of dictators, can seem warm and charming.
And as the smiling men with gleaming teeth from Moscow have come to call, it so happens that Kim also is feeling desperately unloved.
China has been Pyongyang’s indispensable patron since the Korean War in the early 1950s, propping up North Korea’s hopelessly dysfunctional economy and providing diplomatic cover at the United Nations for its ideological sibling. But North Korea’s insistence, against all reason, on pursuing a nuclear weapons development program, and Beijing’s growing preference for pragmatic foreign relations over ideological ones are coming close to severing the old ties.
The coming to power of Kim, 31, on the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in December 2011, is the last straw for China. Now, Beijing is hardly in a position to turn up its nose at monarchic Marxism. After all, China’s Communist Party leadership has morphed into a classic Chinese dynasty; a conglomerate of grossly wealthy aristocratic families. New figures from a study done by Peking University show that one per cent of China’s population controls over a third of the country’s wealth. That one per cent is the party leadership and its “princeling” offspring.
But when others mirror our own faults they always seem especially vile.
The relationship between Pyongyang and Beijing went through many stresses and strains during the 17-year rule of Kim Jong-il. But he was always careful not to let the ties reach breaking point.
For whatever reason – ignorance, inexperience, hubris, take your pick – Kim Jong-un has wilfully undermined the relationship with Beijing. China’s misgivings about the young Kim gathered early as the new leader asserted his power by purging the old guard, especially in the military, inherited from his father.
The decisive moment for Beijing came last December when Kim struck out at his uncle, Jang Song-thaek. Jang had close relations with the leadership in Beijing and was a strong advocate of North Korea following China’s example of abandoning Marxism in favour of authoritarian capitalism.
Jang had been delegated by Kim Jong-il to mentor his son and guide the new leader through the learning years of his rule. But Kim Jong-un has shown an easy facility with the violence and brutality North Korean leaders seem to think they need to display to establish their right to rule. Kim became suspicious that his uncle was building his own power network that could quickly become a threat to the new leader. In December last year, Jang was arrested in the middle of a large ruling party political meeting, tried before a military court and then executed.
Beijing’s expression of displeasure was immediate. Data from China’s customs authorities show that it exported no crude oil to North Korea in the first five months of this year, the longest period Beijing has used this sanction. Beijing has also stepped up its enforcement of international embargoes against North Korea, imposed to try to halt Pyongyang’s development of nuclear warheads and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
At the same time, Beijing has been rapidly building commercial and diplomatic relations with democratic South Korea, which has become one of China’s main trading partners in Asia. Much to Pyongyang’s chagrin, China’s new President and Communist Party leader Xi Jinping visited Seoul before he did North Korea. Beijing’s disdain for the young Kim was compounded by the leaking to media of what purported to be an internal Beijing report on the imminent collapse of the Pyongyang regime and how China intended to respond. There was nothing extraordinary in this alleged report, but the whole point was that it was leaked to the media. That sort of thing doesn’t usually happen in China unless the Beijing powers want it to.
Kim has responded with his own increasingly public anti-Beijing propaganda. When, last week, the United Nations Security Council criticized Pyongyang for testing short-range missiles, Kim’s media accused Beijing of “lacking backbone” by supporting the motion.
There was another public display of the breech on Sunday when North Korea celebrated “Day of Victory in the Fatherland Liberation War,” the 61st anniversary of the armistice ending the Korean War in 1953. China usually plays a major role in these celebrations. After all, former Chinese leader Mao Zedong dispatched 700,000 Chinese “volunteer” soldiers to support North Korea. They prevented a United Nations victory in the war and forced the continuing division of the peninsular. Over 180,000 Chinese died fighting, including Mao’s son.
In this year’s celebration, however, there was no Chinese presence and no mention of China’s contribution to North Korea’s defence.
This discord has provided fertile ground for Moscow. Even before the upheaval in Ukraine provoked Putin’s disguised intervention, Moscow had decided there are benefits to replacing Beijing as North Korea’s protector. After a flurry of visits by Moscow ministers in March and April, Pyongyang offered a raft of unprecedented privileges for Russian business people. These included simplified visa applications, transactions in Russian rubles rather than United States dollars, and unrestricted access to the Internet.
Pyongyang’s media has continued the charm offensive by presenting Putin’s policies in a favourable light, and unconditionally supporting his annexation of Crimea. Moscow has responded by announcing it wants to increase trade with North Korea tenfold by 2020.
But no doubt Putin knows enough of North Korea to be cautious. The whole history of the Kim dynasty, whose founding father Kim Il-sung was, ironically, put in place by the old Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War, is not a desire for productive partnerships. It is the quest for handouts from dupes to keep the Kim family in the lavish lifestyle to which it has become accustomed.
Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014
Dark North Korea, F&O blog post with photograph of North and South Korea from the International Space Station.
BRICS Bank a Game Changer, by Ali Burak Güven, July 22, 2014
North Korea’s Kim renews his quest for a nuclear life-saver, by Jonathan Manthorpe, May 2014
Crumbling of the BRICs, by Jonathan Manthorpe, April 2014
Leave Ukraine to the Russians, by Jonathan Manthorpe, March 2014
Putin more in tune with the times than Obama, by Jonathan Manthorpe, March 2014
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