[Viewpoint] North’s reason to worry about ChinaNorth Korea’s National Defense Commission’s vice chairman Jang Song-thaek’s visit to China last week drew a lot of media attention. A newspaper reported that China treated Jang, the powerful uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, as the state leader because he stayed at the Diaoyutai Chinese State Guesthouse and Chinese Ambassador to North Korea Liu Hongcai received him.
Based on that, the report speculated with exaggeration that Jang perhaps has more power than Kim in the North.
It is undeniable that Jang is one of the most powerful members of the North’s power elites. But it is not true that China treated him as a state leader. First, Liu was already in China for his vacation. It is undeniably special treatment for him to stop his vacation to accompany Jang although he is not the North’s leader. But with a top official from the host nation making a visit to his homeland, the ambassador cannot simply ignore it.
It is also not true that Jang’s stay at the Diaoyutai Chinese State Guesthouse meant he was treated as a state leader. The Diaoyutai is a state-run guest house, but other foreign guests can stay there even if they are not state leaders. Because there are many buildings, China makes a decision on which one to use. For example, the SBS network once filmed a food show in 2007 at the Diaoyutai Chinese State Guesthouse. In other words, China simply gave Jang proper treatment.
What was special was how the two countries’ media reported his visit. The North doesn’t make detailed reports when its dignitaries make visits to foreign countries, but the tradition was not kept this time. The Rodong Shinmun and the Korean Central News Agency reported almost every detail of his trip after departure.
In contrast, the Chinese media was quiet. Some analyzed that the two countries’ media were reflecting the two governments’ differences in opinion on the development projects of Hwanggumpyong and Rajin-Sonbong districts. They said China was enthusiastic in making investments in Rajin-Sonbong and lukewarm toward the Hwanggumpyong project, while the North wanted China to hurry to invest in Hwanggumpyong.
The analysis has some points, but it is not entirely true. It is important to pay attention to the aid negotiation that China and the North hold every year. Sources say the North presents the type and amount of aid that it wants to receive, and China reduces it in the annual negotiation. They also say China demands that the North reciprocate and the two countries’ working-level officials spend many sleepless nights to persuade each other. It is easy to imagine how desperately the North negotiates.
The two joint investment projects are just matters that were opened to public, and it is highly likely that the two sides were having a tug-of-war over the aid negotiation. Jang’s visit to China and the North Korean media’s massive coverage of it can also be seen as a way to use it as leverage in the negotiation. Because Kim Jong-un cannot make a trip to China in the immediate future, Jang’s visit is likely intended to pressure Beijing.
Another important member of Jang’s entourage also deserves more attention. Ri Su-yong accompanied Jang in the delegation. Ri is the deputy department director of the Workers’ Party’s Secretary’s Office and a godfather-like figure to Kim. While serving as the North’s ambassador to Switzerland under the alias of Ri Chol for 18 years, he supported Kim and his brother’s studies abroad in the European country.
The Secretary’s Office is a secretariat that assists Kim, the first secretary of the Workers’ Party, and it is composed of dozens of deputy department directors. Ri, in his mid-70s, appeared to have the largest amount of power among the deputy directors. Despite his older age, he accompanied Jang to China, which leads to speculation that he had a special mission. For example, he might have discussed the possibility of Kim’s trip to China.
China already said it welcomes Kim’s visit anytime. If Ri actually discussed the possibility this time, it is safe to assume that the trip is imminent. It is, therefore, important to pay attention to whether or not he will make a visit to China before the election of the Communist Party of China’s 18th National Congress, which will take place in a couple of months.
Kim must visit China before Xi Jinping is elected as China’s next president if he wants Xi to visit Pyongyang first before visiting Seoul, and that could be the mission of Ri.
If Kim Jong-il were alive, there will be no reason for the North to pay attention to it, but Kim, the new and young leader of the North, has enough reasons to worry about China’s change of heart.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Kang Young-jin