[Viewpoint] Will Kim’s bet on China work?

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[Viewpoint] Will Kim’s bet on China work?

After several visits to China, Chung Chung-kil, former chief of staff to President Lee Myung-bak, claimed that North Korea is far more shrewd than South Korea in dealing with China. North Koreans take pains to impress not only China’s incumbent senior government officials, but also its retired elders. Such scrupulous attention and management of acquaintances are North Korea’s strong diplomatic assets, Chung noted.

Chung’s observations are hard to dismiss, given his personal experience with the currents of power. Many were surprised when North Korean leader Kim Jong-il traveled hours to cross a northern border city to arrive at the southeastern city of Yangzhou to pay a visit to former Chinese President Jiang Zemin.

Kim deliberately paid respect to Jiang after closely studying Chinese modern history. China had been run by the Old Guard in the post-Mao Zedong era. Military generals and party elders conspired to reinstate Deng Xiaoping in 1977. Ye Jianying and Li Xiannian overthrew the Gang of Four to put Deng into power. The ousting of Huo Guofeng, designated to succeed Mao, was also led by party and military leaders Chen Yun and Wang Zhen.

A military crackdown against protests at Tiananmen Square in April 1989 was decided one evening at Deng’s residence. While Politburo members kept silent, “old-timers” like Yang Shangkun, Bo Yibo, and Peng Zhen persuaded Deng to endorse the hard-line stance against the protesters.

These men are referred to as the Eight Elders, who survived through the political turmoil of the Great Leap and Cultural Revolution. Deng had been a central member of the group.

Even as a political figurehead, Deng, upon retirement, made his famous southern tour of China, preaching economic reforms and open policy and spearheading revitalization of southern cities and Shanghai.

The back-room leadership by elders is still alive today. When Bo Yibo, the last of the Eight Elders, died in 2007, the Communist Party announced a policy to seek out opinions from retired elders on state affairs. Former President Jiang and Prime Ministers Li Peng and Zho Rongji still attend Politburo meetings.

One thing is for sure. North Korea’s Kim is well-versed in the Chinese power structure. Unlike President Hu Jintao, who built his power base in Beijing, Jiang, having gained political prominence in Shanghai, could be more sympathetic toward North Korea’s second father-to-son power succession. But the Shanghai faction has had key figures in China’s economic and open reforms. To win their support, Kim would have had to make some gestures to impress them. When Kim visited China twice while Jiang was in power, North Korea pledged to ease its rigid economic system to please Chinese leadership.

Kim’s recent visit underscored a change in the common Chinese people’s view of North Korea. Technology-savvy Chinese tweeted of being annoyed by the strict traffic control and disturbance by Kim’s visit. More surprising than the public mockery was indifference. Kim traveled more than 3,000 miles around China for nearly a week and yet his name failed to be on the 50 most-searched words.

Kim may not mind what ordinary Chinese people say, as long as he can get the Chinese government’s endorsement of his plans to pass power to his politically immature youngest son and enough aid to feed his starving people.

Such rewards would be credited to his insightful intuition on how power works in China. But even with the backing of the elders, Kim must remember that he would have to win the support of ordinary Chinese.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Chul-ho
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