China and DPRK signaling greater cooperation

Aidan Foster-Carter wrties about the recent increase in China-DPRK “friendship” activities in the Asia Times

Over a month ago, in an article in these columns, I suggested a number of reasons why North Korea may well become a quasi-satellite of China.

Well, it’s happening even faster than I expected. In all the excitement about Kim Jong-eun’s coming-out for a second time, at the 65th birthday of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) on October 10, we risk missing another key aspect of that big Pyongyang parade.

The “reptile press” – one of my favorite North Korean phrases; yup, I’m a lizard and proud – all oohed and aahed at their first glimpse of the “young general”. Most paid less attention to a middle-aged chap also standing on the podium, not far from the clearly ailing Kim Jong-il. The one without a badge – meaning he isn’t North Korean. A rare privilege for a foreigner.

How now, Zhou
Meet Zhou Yongkang. Hardly a household name, yet ranked ninth in China’s politburo. A former minister of public security (2002-2007), he still has responsibilities in that key area.

Now Zhou has a new role too: he is China’s point man on North Korea. This seems to have been his first trip there, but it won’t be his last. Barely a week later, back in Beijing, he was on the job again, this time hosting a large visiting North Korean delegation (of which more below).

Zhou has been parachuted in above Wang Jiarui, the head of the Chinese Communist Party’s international liaison department, who in recent years had been China’s most frequent flyer to Pyongyang. Wang is still on the case: he was part of the October 10 delegation too, but clearly ranked below Zhou.

This seems less a demotion for Wang than a broadening of Beijing’s agenda. Wang’s main task, a thankless one, was and is to try to chivvy the Kims into line on the nuclear issue. That remains a key goal, but now in a wider context. China wants to deepen its overall relations with North Korea. To that end, bringing in a new more senior figure to take charge flatters the Kims, while Zhou’s background in public security is doubtless meant to reassure them.

China means business
Who else did Zhou bring along? Not the usual cross-section of the great and the good, but the neighbors: meaning senior figures from the three Chinese provinces – Jilin, Liaoning and Heilongjiang – which border or are close to North Korea. This trio had a special dinner with a quartet who are their North Korean equivalents: the party secretaries – provincial governors in all but name – from North Pyongan, Jagang, Ryanggang and North Hamgyong, the four provinces which adjoin China across the Yalu (Amnok in Korean) and Tumen rivers.

Not only dinner, but a deal. On the eve of Pyongyang’s parade, the two sides signed a trade agreement. No details were given, but again each side’s border bigwigs were in evidence.

Nor did it end there. A week later, one of North Korea’s rising stars led a big delegation to China, with provinces again prominent. Aged only 53, much younger than most of North Korea’s gerontocratic elite, Mun Kyong-dok is a new alternate politburo member. He also holds the key job of party secretary for Pyongyang. As such, on September 30 he gave a keynote speech in front of 150,000 people, congratulating Kim Jong-il on his re-election as leader.

October 16 saw Mun on the road, shepherding all 11 of North Korea’s provincial or big city party secretaries to – where else? – Beijing. Welcoming them, Zhou Yongkang – who else? – noted that this was “the first time that the secretaries from all the WPK provincial and municipal committees have visited China”, adding, “I wish that you will expand exchange with various Chinese regions you’re visiting and achieve success from your tours.” Mun replied that “We will study and learn the successful experiences from China.”

Maybe this time?
We’ve heard that before, even from Kim Jong-il – who forgets all about it as soon as he gets back home. But as Sally Bowles sings in Cabaret: “Maybe this time.” Sending such a large team – a full house, indeed – on the road in this way, including several younger and newly appointed provincial party bosses, looks like a real effort to take things forward. China won’t be impressed if its mendicant neighbor merely rattles the begging bowl again.

Mun’s team went on to – where else? – the northeast, visiting factories in Heilongjiang and Jilin. These provinces have in the past had bones to pick with their unneighborly neighbor, which too often fails to pay for coal or other goods – and sometimes doesn’t even return the railway wagons used to deliver them. That sort of tiresome trickery will have to stop. Time will tell whether North Korea has really turned over a new leaf in its business dealings.

Blood brothers
On another front, by a convenient coincidence October 19 was the 60th anniversary of China’s entry into the Korean War. The massed ranks of Chinese People’s Volunteers (CPV) – old British army joke: “I want three volunteers: You, you and you!” – turned the tide, saved Kim Il-sung’s bacon and stopped General Douglas MacArthur wiping the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) off the map.

Cue yet more love-ins. The state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) ran a stirring headline: “Friendship Forged in Blood in Anti-US War.” Special events included a photo exhibition, a Chinese film week and performances by a visiting art troupe from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). A delegation from the Korean People’s Army visited China, led by vice minister of the People’s Armed Forces Pyon Il-son: a hitherto obscure general, but evidently another name to watch.

China reciprocated by sending a better-known bigwig. (Speaking of which, he wears one – or so says Wigipedia.) Unlike Zhou Yongkang, who is new to this patch, General Guo Boxiong – vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission – has had North Korean links for at least a decade; he visited in 2001 with then-president Jiang Zemin.

Usually the CPV anniversary is marked by a low-key wreath-laying and a few press articles. But 60 is a big one, and this time Pyongyang pulled out all the stops. There was a mass rally – “held with splendor”, gushed KCNA – with Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-eun in attendance and much stirring rhetoric. The dear leader also hosted a dinner, again with his son present.

Even Arirang has got in on the act. North Korea’s striking yet introverted mass games have finally admitted (pace juche) that the Kims didn’t go it alone; they got by with a little help from their friends. KCNA on October 22 described a newly added scene, “Friendship Arirang”. This highlights the role of the CPV, portrayed with “drums of different sizes, ribbons, red flags and other hand props … several-dozen-meter-long dragons, pandas and lions.”

We helped you first
One wonders what Chinese visitors who are the mainstay of North Korea’s thin tourist trade make of such cliches – or the fact that, the way Pyongyang tells it, that is only half the story. For Arirang also, and first, depicts “the Korean People’s Revolutionary Army and Chinese armed units fighting together against the Japanese imperialists”. The implication is that this was somehow reciprocal: Korea helped China out, and then China repaid the compliment. Note also the disrespect: Korea had an army, China merely “armed units”. What, no PLA?

Pull the other one, comrades. True, a small but gallant band of Korean communists under Mu Chong, a veteran of the Long March, were with Mao Zedong in Yanan. Separately, the young Kim Il-sung was one of a few guerillas – under Chinese command – who skirmished with the Japanese in Manchuria before being chased across the border into the Soviet Union. Kim came back in Soviet uniform and set about purging rivals – including Mu Chong, who had to flee to China. All quite a can of worms, which it seems unwise of North Korea to risk opening.

CPV casualty figures tell their own story. This year Beijing quantified these. A staggering three million Chinese troops fought in what China still calls the “War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea”. Over 180,000 never came back. PLA statistics show 114,084 killed in action or accidents, with another 25,621 missing. A further 70,000 died from wounds, illness or other causes. There are 183,108 registered war martyrs. Others put China’s losses as even higher. With all respect to Mu Chong, a few Koreans’ sacrifices for China don’t begin to compare.

Nuclear hopes and fears
China’s many and mixed motives vis-a-vis North Korea now include never to get dragged into war like that again. To that end, Beijing still professes faith in the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program which it hosts, even though these achieved little tangible – despite many hopes, and much talking-up – over five long years. (They began in 2003 and have been stalled since 2008.)

Here too there is fresh activity. Hardly had the cheers echoing in Kim Il-sung Square died away than the North’s long-time nuclear negotiator Kim Kye-gwan, newly promoted to first vice minister, led a delegation to Beijing on October 12. There followed four days of what KCNA called “an exhaustive and candid discussion on DPRK-China relations, resumption of the six-party talks and the regional situation, etc.” It added: “The DPRK is ready for the resumption of the above-said talks but decided not to go hasty [sic] but to make ceaseless patient efforts now that the US and some other participating countries are not ready…”

True. South Korea and Japan, like the United States, see no point in dusting off the six-party circus without clear signals from Pyongyang on two fronts: a serious will to give up nuclear weapons, as against playing games; and an admission that it sank the South Korean corvette Cheonan in March.

That is a hard gap for Beijing to bridge – especially if there is any basis to recent rumors that North Korea, so far from disarming, may be planning a third nuclear test. Somehow I doubt this. China’s fresh embrace of its tiresome neighbor is not unconditional. I would expect its price for propping up the Kims to be twofold: Market reforms – and no more nuclear tests.

Another bang would sorely tax China’s patience with this tiresome thorn in its northeastern flesh. Beijing is still sheltering number one son Kim Jong-nam, who on October 12 rained (or an earthier verb springs to mind) on little brother’s parade by declaring that he personally was against a third-generation succession. Might anyone try to change his mind? Jong-nam may look ghastly, but he is pro-reform. If Jong-eun proves a pest or a dud, China has alternatives.

Read the full story here:
North Korea: Embracing the dragon
Asia Times
Aidan Foster-Carter


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