Asia Pacific | ANALYSIS

North Korea's purge puts China on spot

Move strips Beijing of reform-minded ally in Pyongyang


The stunning execution of Jang Song Thaek, the powerful uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, strips China of its most important link to Pyongyang’s leadership and deepens concerns over how its unruly neighbor will proceed on Beijing’s key issues of nuclear disarmament and economic reform.

Facing heightened uncertainty, Beijing for now will likely avoid any response that might boost panic or paranoia in the North, where China is both valued and resented as a key backer of Kim’s regime.

“It’s like when you have a gas leak. You want to be very, very careful not to set off any sparks,” said Jingdong Yuan, an expert on Northeast Asian security at the University of Sydney.

At the same time, China is likely dusting off its contingency plans for instability in North Korea or even a regime collapse that could see thousands of refugees swarm across its borders, put Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities at risk, and prompt action by the U.S. and South Korean militaries, according to Yuan.

“This is not a welcome development as far as China is concerned,” Yuan said.

Long considered Kim’s mentor and the country’s No. 2, Jang formed a key conduit between Pyongyang and Beijing because of his association with Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, along with his support for China-backed reforms to resuscitate North Korea’s moribund economy.

Jang met with top Chinese officials in Pyongyang, and in 2012 he traveled to China as the head of one of the largest North Korean delegations ever to visit Beijing to discuss the construction of special economic zones that China hopes will ensure the North’s stability.

His execution on myriad charges, ranging from treason to drug abuse, further diminishes Beijing’s narrow influence on the regime of the young Kim. Despite being North Korea’s only significant ally and a crucial source of trade and aid, China has been unsuccessful in persuading it to rejoin six-nation nuclear disarmament talks. Meanwhile, Beijing’s overwhelming desire for stability along its northeastern border prevents it from getting overly tough on Pyongyang.

Jang’s China contacts were not explicitly mentioned in the official litany of crimes against him, although he was accused of underselling North Korean mineral resources for which China is virtually the sole customer. His Chinese ties also were implicitly criticized via a reference to corruption linked to a 2011 project in conjunction with China at North Korea’s Rason Special Economic Zone.

Jang, the official Korean Central News Agency said, “made no scruple of committing such act of treachery in May last as selling off the land of the Rason economic and trade zone to a foreign country for a period of five decades under the pretext of paying those debts.”

His execution comes at a delicate time in the two countries’ relations. While Kim Jong Il made a number of visits to China, his son has yet to travel outside North Korea and has repeatedly defied Beijing’s calls not to launch missiles and stage nuclear tests. That has in turn spurred Beijing to make unusually bold criticism and sign on to tightened U.N. Security Council sanctions, arousing an angry response from Pyongyang.

The chill in bilateral relations was somewhat relieved following the visit by a top North Korean general to Beijing this summer, but diplomats say China remains committed to working closely with the international community on enforcing sanctions and coaxing Pyongyang back to nuclear talks.

Still, Jang’s demise is not expected to bring major, immediate changes in a relationship that has been remarkably consistent over the many decades since China sent troops to save the North’s regime from extinction in the 1950-53 Korean War.

Wang Junsheng, a North Korea watcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said relations might even benefit since the move leaves Kim in a stronger position than ever to guide Pyongyang’s ties with Beijing, the strengthening of which benefits both sides.

“Kim has now finished consolidating his power and doesn’t need to take drastic change in his foreign policy. Jang was merely a person who offered advice and implemented policy,” Wang said.

China’s response to last week’s events has been extremely low-key, emphasizing that the issue is an internal affair for North Korea and expressing its hopes for stability and economic development. Along with stifling panic, Beijing may be hoping that its nonintervention will spare some of Jang’s pro-China associates from being targeted for removal under the North’s policy of collective punishment.

As with South Korea, the U.S. and other interested parties, China is struggling to analyze the current state of affairs in Pyongyang and ascertain Kim’s positions on key topics.

While Kim has enunciated a policy of jointly pursuing nuclear weapons and development, it is not clear whether he views economic reforms as strengthening his rule or undermining it by inviting unwelcome comparisons with foreign economies and by introducing foreign concepts and practices, said Shi Yuanhua, director of the Center for Korean Studies at Shanghai’s Fudan University.

“North Korea couldn’t live without China, but cooperation in developing the special economic zones may be affected to some extent,” Shi said.

Overall, Kim’s attitude toward economic reform in cooperation with China remains a mixed bag, said Fang Xiuyu, a North Korea expert at Shanghai’s Fudan University. Even as Pyongyang was announcing Jang’s purging, North Korean and Chinese representatives were signing contracts on cross-border high-speed rail and highway connections, Fang pointed out.

“I don’t think North Korea’s economic relations with China will be affected because of this particular incident, but all we can really do for now is speculate,” she said.