Is North Korea's double dealing risking its most important relationship?
BY Shen Dingli
DECEMBER 14, 2013
In August 2012, top North Korean official Jang Song Taek visited Beijing. Jang, the uncle of North Korean President Kim Jong Un, had made several trips to China before and after, but this one was probably the most important. He met with then President Hu Jintao and then Premier Wen Jiabao, underscoring the importance of the bilateral relationship, and signed several agreements, the most prominent one concerning a special economic zone in Rason, just across Chinese border in northwest North Korea. Comrades-in-arms ever since the anti-Japanese War and the Korean War, China and North Korea have long maintained a special relationship. And Jang was North Korea's premier China hand -- Pyongyang's point person in bilateral economic cooperative projects.
All of that, however, has now changed dramatically. In early December, Pyongyang said Jang, who was thought to be the second most-powerful man in North Korea, had been stripped of all his posts. On Dec. 13, Pyongyang announced Jang's execution -- demonstrating the unpredictability brutality of North Korean politics, and also how intense palace in-fighting has become.
But it could also be a very worrying sign for China's relationship with North Korea. In the statement announcing Jang's execution, published Friday, Dec. 13, Pyongyang implicates China several times. It denounces Jang for betraying his national interest by leasing land in Rason to a "foreign country" -- obviously China. It claims Jang allowed his confidents to illegally sell precious minerals and coal, also allegedly to China.
While it is not difficult to understand the North Korean regime's need to consolidate power by purging Jang and his cliques -- not unheard of among countries of the former Soviet bloc -- it is not easy to understand why Pyongyang so openly linked China with Jang as part of the justification for his sudden and brutal purge. Yes, North Korea has the right to execute a highly corrupt official, but using this occasion to negatively implicate its neighbor is highly questionable. On Dec. 13, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei stated that Jang's execution is North Korea's internal affairs, adding, "We hope and we believe that the business relations between China and the DPRK will continue to progress in a healthy and stable way." This message, however, may have been politely optimistic.
One wonders if Pyongyang has any interest in conducting future business with China. If China has accepted Jang's "selling" of North Korea's "national interests," as Pyongyang claims, does the Kim regime want China to apologize and "return" these national interests? If this is true, and Jang has sold out his country, North Korea obviously will not proceed with Rason. Ruediger Frank, a North Korea expert at the University of Vienna, told the Guardian, "The public nature of the whole thing might perhaps be a message to China: we have got your man and stay out of our business." Does Pyongyang want to communicate that it is closed for business?
Instead, both governments should take credit for, and honor, the 2012 agreement to co-develop projects in Rason. If that agreement contained any inadequacies, the two sides should have consulted bilaterally and then put forth a mutually acceptable amendment. China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson also stated, "what China and North Korea have conducted is normal economic and trade cooperation, which is of the common interests of the two countries and two peoples" -- elegantly rebuffing Pyongyang's insinuation that China was shrewdly double-dealing with Jang. That is the way to conduct diplomacy. One party publicly embarrassing the other -- especially through such a high-profile case, claiming Jang sold out his nation's interest, and China allowed it -- is unacceptable.
An interesting aside: in its long list of crimes Jang allegedly committed, Pyongyang also includes the charge of trying to stage a coup: "thrice-cursed treason." If that was true, it may have been in Jang's interest to sabotage international cooperation in Rason. A more isolated North Korea would increase the likelihood of economic stagnation and even famine, thus setting the stage for Jang's alleged coup.
Either way, North Korea cannot blame China. If Jang were indeed trying to cheat North Korea by selling off its national interests, China would not have allowed it. If the charge is false, Beijing will not let its country be demonized by Pyongyang. Amid Jang's purge and the coming crackdown of Jang's followers, the Rason collaboration could be difficult for Beijing to maintain -- until Pyongyang can apologize. North Korea knows better than anyone just how much more it has received from China than it has given. Yes, executing Jang is certainly not China's business. But condemning a criminal for his relations with China, under Pyongyang's authorization, is very unhelpful to the continuation of the relationship.
Shen Dingli is associate dean at the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.