Kim’s successor, nuclear talks and Beijing’s role
“The North Korean leader Kim Jong-il got a ‘de facto endorsement’ on his recent visit to China to transfer power to his third son,” said Funabashi Yoichi, editor in chief of the Asahi Shimbun, in a roundtable discussion with Yan Xuetong, a director at Tsinghua University’s Institute of International Studies.
Yan said China can’t dictate to North Korea and only “passively” approved the decision. The discussion about current issues on the Korean Peninsula was led at the Shilla Hotel in Seoul by Kim Young-hie, an editor at large for the JoongAng Ilbo.
Kim Young-hie: First we are talking about Kim Jong-il’s recent visit to China. Our understanding is that the main purpose of Kim’s visit was to get China’s support or approval for his son, Kim Jong-un, as his successor. He also asked for major economic aid, and a way to get over the suffocating situation that developed after the Cheonan incident. If there are other purposes besides these, please tell me. China first.
Yan Xuetong: As for my understanding, Kim visited China twice in such a short period, which means he needs China’s support, something very important to him. He needs support to maintain power within his own family and to name his successor. Generally speaking, the current political situation in North Korea does not guarantee a smooth transfer to Kim’s son because it is like a feudal system. This is why he needed China to help keep his hold on power.
Kim: China did not endorse the succession?
Yan: That’s beyond China’s capability.
Kim: Then what has China given to Kim Jong-il in this respect?
Yan: I think China would have given general support to a decision by the ruling party of North Korea, rather than guaranteeing the power be transferred successfully within Kim’s family.
Funabashi Yoichi: I think he was trying to send a message to his domestic audience (in North Korea) that China has given a de facto endorsement (of his son). If he gets food from China or some other support, it will be a tacit endorsement. Even though President Hu Jintao said nothing specific, he promised to provide assistance and Kim would regard this support as tacit approval (for succession). For that reason, I think his visit was successful.
At the same time, I think he must have felt a lack of credibility in the eyes of North Korean citizens and he must have felt compelled to make up for that by paying a visit to his father’s historical sites. China was an incidental theater.
I was told by Chinese officials that Kim Jong-il was flexible and he promised to be more flexible in dealing with nuclear issues and the six-party talks. Certainly nobody believes this promise, because we have seen that kind of promise so many times in the last ten years. But I think his comment and gesture is very important.
Yan: He didn’t go to Beijing. That means this visit should not be regarded as state visit. My understanding is China did not guarantee something Kim required - power transition in North Korea.
Funabashi: I think it’s better for him to have this kind of informal visit with President Hu Jintao because Hu travelled (away from Beijing to meet Kim). I think Kim could sell it to his audience, saying that President Hu Jintao paid sufficient respect to Kim, while Kim did not meet President (Jimmy) Carter. That also is a gesture to the Chinese that Kim paid high respect to China.
Kim: How do you interpret this Carter thing? Carter expected to meet Kim, but Kim brushed him off.
Yan: First, I’m not so sure that Carter had a formal invitation from Kim. It could have been a letter from North Korea or a ministry, rather than the leader. This is not same.
Kim: What is possibility that Kim actually and intentionally used Carter?
Yan: That possible. I think he wanted to show to his own people and the U.S. that he is closer to China than the U.S.
Funabashi: This has been a pattern for the past ten years. Whenever midterm elections come around in the United States, they find North Korean leadership doesn’t show any interest in dealing with the U.S. I don’t think Kim expects Obama to make a major breakthrough. Secondly, whenever the U.S.-China relationship gets worse, Kim usually defers to China more, and when it gets better, he is inclined to defer to the U.S. And I think that the Cheonan (incident) has caused some tensions between Washington and Beijing.
Kim: Well, Dr. Funabashi said Kim promised to be more flexible from now on in regard to the six-party talks, South Korea and America. Professor Yan, you are saying that China gave Kim principal support leading up to the party meeting to decide on the succession, so here I notice a gap, which is very interesting.
Yan: Well, actually, Kim has become flexible about the idea of resuming the six-party talks because he knows it’s impossible in the short term. First of all, South Korea has already put a precondition (an apology for the Cheonan incident) on resuming the talks. North Korea is very clever. They know the South Koreans will lose face if they come back to the talks. North Korea understands that to resume six-party talks now is impossible, but it can say “O.K., I will be flexible to resume them.”
Kim: But recently South Korea said, “Let’s do the talks and the precondition together.” And Pyongyang knows this, even if it hasn’t been officially announced. Am I right? What is your view of the six-party talks? Who will initiate this: Kim or Hu Jintao?
Funabashi: I think China would ask Kim to come back to table but not say it’s compulsory. If Kim comes back to the table in the vaguest terms, that would give some room for China to save face. So the six-party talks won’t be held in the near future. I don’t think there is any strong incentive for North Korea to come back to the table.
Yan: I agree with Funabashi on this point. It is definitely China’s initiative to ensure the six-party talks resume because we already sent Wu Dawei to talk about the possibility of resuming them. China also hopes to resume them. In my understanding, just because North Korea understands it is impossible to resume the talks, he took the opportunity to get over the Cheonan incident.
Kim: Maybe after the China visit, the Obama administration will reinforce sanctions against the North, so Kim will not to come to the talks so easily or too soon. And even if the six-party talks are resumed, there isn’t much hope for success.
Funabashi: So if the six-party talks focus heavily on the denuclearization of North Korea, I doubt we can achieve that goal soon. Most people should realize that the security issue cannot be solved by economic benefits. No matter how much money you give the North, they won’t give up nuclear weapons.
Yan: In my understanding, they use the nuclear weapons for national security, not for economic benefits.
Funabashi: I think most of the ambition (to denuclearize North Korea) is impossible. But we have to take into account the successor, Kim Jong-un. He will inherit nuclear capability, but he will not be able to dispose of it easily because they are his father’s nuclear weapons.
Yan: What he mentioned is really important. Sometimes a regime change can bring about denuclearization. When the regime is replaced, they will give up nuclear weapons.
Kim: Am I correct in understanding the two of you are saying, in effect, that CVID - complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement - is now an unrealistic goal?
Yan: That depends on the situation. If it’s a new regime, then it could be possible.
Kim: No, I mean through negotiation.
Yan: Oh, that’s too ambitious.
Funabashi: I don’t think it will happen. I think we are going to see a change of doctrine - a regime change. I do not think this succession will be successful. I think it’s more likely the regime will collapse.
Kim: What will China do if there is an overnight collapse of North Korea?
Yan: First, we should prevent North Korean refugees from pouring into the country because it will be a big social problem. Second, we should prevent war.
Funabashi: I think the United States, particularly, should refrain from criminal-terrorist measures. And primarily, the U.N. Security Council should deal with it. Third, South Korea should not go into the North because it is an independent sovereign state as a member of the United Nations.
By Chun Su-jin, Kim Hee-jin [firstname.lastname@example.org]