Ching Cheong reports for The Straits Times, Dec. 24, 2013, that North Korea leader Kim Jong Un‘s execution of his uncle and No. 2 man, , took Beijing by surprise and will adversely affect bilateral relations. Jang was known for his close ties with Beijing.
Beijing expressed their displeasure of Kim through the publication of a detailed account of Jang’s brutal execution in Wen Wei Po, the Chinese government’s official mouthpiece in Hong Kong, on Dec 12.
According to the report, unlike previous executions of political prisoners which were carried out by firing squads with machine guns, Jang was stripped naked and thrown into a cage, along with his five closest aides. There, the six men were eaten by 120 ravenous hounds who had been starved for three days. The Chinese call it quan jue (犬 决 ): execution by dogs.
Kim Jong Un, along with 300 senior officials, “supervised” the “execution by dogs” which lasted for an hour.
The fact that the account of the brutal execution appeared in a Beijing-controlled newspaper shows that China no longer cares about its relations with the Kim regime.
Two days later, another Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece — the Chinese-language Global Times — followed up with a sternly worded editorial saying that the execution epitomized the backwardness of the North Korean political system. It warned the Chinese government not to coddle North Korea any longer, saying that the majority of Chinese were extremely disgusted with the Kim regime.
Beijing understood Kim’s brutal purging of a top official known for his close ties with Beijing as a sign of Pyongyang’s antagonism towards China. Indeed, the official litany of Jang’s “treason” implicated China three times. Jang was accused of:
- Underselling coal and other natural resources for which China was virtually the sole customer.
- “Selling off the land of Rason economic and trade zone to a foreign country for a period of five decades under the pretext of paying debts.”
- Selling precious metals, thus disrupting North Korea’s financial stability. China had purchased some of North Korea’s gold reserves several months ago.
- Aiding Chinese businessmen in securing low prices for North Korean goods and commodities.
Pyongyang’s suspicion and apprehension towards China is longstanding and dates back to the time of Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founder and Jong Un’s grandfather. Although China had fought the United States in the Korean War (1950-53) to preserve the North Korean regime, Kim Il Sung was less than grateful. Once the war was over, he started purging the Yan-an faction within his party — a faction so named because its members had received training in Yan-an, the capital of the Chinese Communist Party in the 1940s.
Stanford University research fellow David Straub recalled that when he accompanied former United States assistant secretary of state James Kelly to North Korea in 2002, the North’s then Vice-Foreign Minister Kang Sok Ju made comments that minimized Chinese assistance during the Korean War.
Likewise, this author (StMA) and two other members of the Consortium of Defense Analysts were in Pyongyang in 1991 and heard North Korean military officials more than minimizing China’s assistance during the Korean War. They made no mention that China had even fought in the war.
When Kim Il Sung’s son, Kim Jong Il, took over the helm, he did not hide the fact that his nuclear weapons could be used against China. According to Xue Litai, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, an American source who accompanied former US president Bill Clinton in his visit to Pyongyang in 2009 said that a North Korean senior official told Clinton that their nuclear weapons could not reach the US but could be “pointed West” in the direction of the Chinese mainland. The North Korean official also reportedly suggested that if the US changed its policy towards Pyongyang, the latter could become a strong bastion against China.
The Korean peninsula was a vassal state of China in the 17th century. A deep-rooted suspicion remains among the North Korean leadership that China wants to make North Korea its satellite state. In addition, Pyongyang resents Beijing for establishing ties with its rival in South Korea. North Korea also finds China — a nuclear power — pressuring Pyongyang to halt the latter’s nuclear program to be hypocritical.
All of which might account for Kim Jong Un’s purge of pro-China elements like his uncle Jang.
But Kim’s brutality and ruthlessness are now a source of concern for the Chinese:
- China now thinks its own security is at risk from Pyongyang’s nuclear threat. Global Times had an article by Lieutenant-General Wang Hongguang, former deputy commander of Nanjing Greater Military Region, saying that the execution of Jang shows North Korea had become increasingly provocative and was getting out of (Chinese) control. Wang urged a complete reassessment of security threats originating from North Korea.
- China’s political and strategic influence on the Korean peninsula has been drastically reduced. In the past, China was widely considered to be able to rein in the unruly Kim regime, thus acting as a force for peace in the region. But it now appears China wields no influence over its neighbor. That may account for recent moves by China to consult with Russia — Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi telephoned his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov for urgent consultation on Dec 13, followed by Ambassador Wu Dawei’s trip to Moscow. Both moves suggest that Beijing believes it can no longer tame the Kim regime by itself.
- China had hoped to nurture a less belligerent North Korea by encouraging its neighbor to undertake liberalizing economic reform similar to what China had undertaken beginning in 1979. Jang had been working closely with China on precisely that — to bring about a Chinese-style transformation in North Korea. With Jang brutally executed, the idea of a peaceful transformation now seems unrealistic.
H/t CODA’s Sol Sanders
- “China holds war games near border with unstable North Korea,” Dec. 10, 2013.
- “North Korea threatens U.S. with all-out nuclear war,” Oct. 12, 2013.
- “UN: Unspeakable atrocities in North Korea,” Sept. 20, 2013.