[Viewpoint] The post-Kim Jong-il era

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[Viewpoint] The post-Kim Jong-il era

Ailing North Korean leader Kim Jong-il wrapped up a mysterious, sudden trip to China - his second in three months - spawning speculation about the purpose of the visit.

Kim, who crossed the border by train Wednesday midnight, visited a middle school that his father, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, attended and a memorial park for anti-Japanese independence fighters in Jilin, toured industrial sites, and reportedly met with Chinese President Hu Jintao in the northeastern city of Changchun before heading home.

His path suggests several interpretations about the purpose of the trip. The first is to lay the groundwork for the communist state’s sole major ally - China - to approve plans to name Kim’s third and youngest son, Kim Jong-un, as his successor. It appears the third-generation of hereditary succession is panning out under close negotiations with China and such a special fraternity will likely expand to tight bilateral economic cooperation.

The recalcitrant leader also may have timed his visit to China to intentionally snub former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who travelled to Pyongyang on a mercy mission to free an imprisoned American citizen, thus sending a message to the Obama administration, which has recently toughened sanctions against North Korea. Pyongyang has been overtly cozying up to Beijing in order to seek a breakthrough in aid and easing of sanctions through the leverage of denuclearization efforts and six-party talks.

In a week or two, North Korea plans to hold a rare ruling party convention for the first time in 44 years to make the father-to-son transition of power formal. The succession is connected with the country’s dire economic condition. The North Korean economy is in tatters due to a disastrous currency redenomination and a severe cash shortage due to prolonged international sanctions, undermining the fundamentals for a smooth power transition. Transfer of power to Kim’s son isn’t likely to gain extensive support if North Koreans become disillusioned by their leader’s hollow promise of a radical improvement in their lives. Kim - who has been visibly deteriorating since a stroke two years ago - devoted half of his known 96 public appearances on economy-related issues. His aspiration for a smooth power transition, therefore, depends on how well he resolves his country’s economic woes and maintains his people’s allegiance.

Sino-North Korean ties will inevitably strengthen. Strained relations between the two Koreas and a strengthened Seoul-Washington alliance will likely push the two countries closer in political, military, and economic fields. Leaders of the two countries have shaken hands to forge a united front against a stronger alliance between Seoul and Washington demonstrated through toughened sanctions and high-profile military drills in response to the Cheonan naval ship sinking.

Beijing is expected to call for greater restraint from Pyongyang in nuclear weapons development and other provocations that can heighten tension in the region. Kim may have promised certain actions in return for China’s moral support and aid.

In economic terms, bilateral ties are more of quid-pro-quo affair. The Chinese government has been pumping funds worth 45 trillion won to develop the rust belt of its northeastern areas to spread out modernization and industrialization across the mainland. The nucleus of the development lies in the pilot zone covering the cities of Changchung and Jilin as well as the Tumen River along the border with North Korea.

North Korea has a natural role in determining the success of this project. Without cross-border cooperation and access to the East Sea through North Korea’s Rajin and Chongjin ports, the zone cannot meet its potential as a route of trade with northeastern Asia. China therefore needs North Korea more than it normally would appear and probably got some key concessions in recent summit meetings.

Kim’s tour around the region reflects Pyongyang’s willingness to cooperate with China. The cross-border development involving ports, roads and infrastructure will likely accelerate through recent agreements. Once the infrastructure is established, bilateral exchanges will also expand. The progress in development and opening via China will serve as rich grounds to help nurture and strengthen the new Kim Jong-un era. The elder Kim’s leadership also can extend across to China’s border cities.

Pyongyang is expected to trot out a new economic platform to bolster trade and exchanges with China. The Chinese want reform in the North’s controlled economic system before they bolster bilateral economic cooperation. Therefore, North Korea’s succession is not a mere power shift but signals a potential turning point in the reclusive state’s economic policy, as well as broadened Sino-North Korean exchange. We must thoroughly ponder the post-Kim Jong-il era and its repercussions on our country.

*The writer is a professor at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

By Lim Eul-chul
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