A glimmer of hopeNorth Korea’s Economic Development Commission and Shangdi Guanqun Investment Co., a Chinese firm specializing in infrastructure and resources development, signed an agreement in Beijing on Dec. 8 to build a high-speed railway and eight-lane expressway connecting Sinuiju, Pyongyang and Kaesong in North Korea. The two sides agreed that a formal contract will be inked “at an appropriate date” after reviews by the two countries’ relevant authorities. It was a significant agreement that will make a dramatic contribution to North Korea-China economic relations and North Korea’s economic and social development.
For North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the purge and execution of his uncle Jang Song-thaek was a dangerous gamble with China. Jang was the person who initiated and led North Korea-China economic cooperation. The Chinese leadership during the Hu Jintao administration considered Jang a reformist who would eventually introduce Chinese-style reforms to the North. They met Jang and encouraged him. China, therefore, could have seen the purge and execution of Jang and his aides as a direct challenge and it could have also put a red light on North Korea-China economic cooperation projects. But apparently the domestic conditions in the North were so grave that they forced Kim to resort to the drastic measure of executing Jang, despite the risks concerning China.
Dec. 8 was only four days before Jang’s execution and the process was probably already ongoing in the North. Kim purged the North’s iconic pro-China official in the most brutal way, but he also sent a conciliatory gesture to China through the construction agreement in Beijing. Kim was sending the message that North-China relations, including economic cooperation, would remain unchanged and he would also push forward the economic development strategy, symbolized by 14 special economic zone projects.
It was also a message for the international community. After executing Jang, the North proposed to the South to hold a joint committee meeting to normalize the operations of the Kaesong Industrial Complex. In addition, an official from the Economic Development Commission gave an unprecedented interview with the Associated Press, which has a bureau in Pyongyang, to stress the continuity of its economic policy. In his game, Kim weighed the value of removing Jang and his associates — potential threats to his monolithic leadership — on one side of his scale, while weighing the worth of sending conciliatory gestures to the international community on the other.
North Korea also continued its two-front warfare toward the South. While it initiated dialogue about globalizing the Kaesong Industrial Complex, it also issued a series of serious war threats. The level of the threats depends on the situation in the North. It is easy to imagine that the power of North Korean military was reinforced in the aftermath of Jang’s execution.
Without Jang, the North Korean military leadership is like a runaway horse. The recently escalated threats by the North appeared to reflect such a situation. If the North Korean people question the execution of Jang or if resistance of various forms takes place during Kim’s attempt to purge the estimated 20,000-plus supporters of Jang, Kim will likely create a crisis with the South in order to unify the North Korean public. The anticipated risk was likely the background of the warnings, issued by the head of the National Intelligence Service and the defense minister in the South, that the North could stage an armed provocation.
The situation on the Korean Peninsula at the end of this year and the beginning of next year appears grim. Speculation came from the nation’s top spy agency that the Kim regime could collapse earlier than expected, and some argued that the South must take the initiative to induce changes in the North. But an aggressive offensive based on purely wishful thinking is reckless and unrealistic. The problem stems from a lack of dialogue and the supremacy of national security in the South Korean government. The generals serving in the Blue House security office, National Intelligence Service and Ministry of National Defense are increasingly gaining power, while the roles of the foreign minister and unification minister have shrunk. This reality will confront the hard-line policy of North Korea’s military-led leadership, and concerns are growing that a new crisis will emerge on the Korean Peninsula.
Although China must have been shocked by Jang’s execution, it presented a far-sighted, strategic and meticulously calculated response for the future of the Pyongyang-Beijing relations by saying the purge was simply a domestic matter for North Korea. The Global Times, a sister newspaper of the People’s Daily, indirectly advised Kim to conclude the situation smoothly and create the condition to visit China in the future. Because there is nothing to gain by punishing Kim, it could perhaps be the most realistic attitude.
Through the bizarre incident of Jang’s execution, we confirmed that this young, fearless Kim can initiate reckless provocations any time. China’s prudent response and the North’s repeated promises to continue its economic cooperation projects with foreign countries as planned are actually a glimmer of hope in the face of stark reality. If the North Korean people harbor doubts about Jang’s execution or if Kim fails to revive the economy and public discontent exacerbates, Kim’s idea of monolithic leadership will fall like a house of cards. The South Korean government should employ a two-track strategy: first, sending a strong message to the North and the four concerned powers — China, the United States, Russia and Japan — that it will sternly retaliate against any North Korean provocations. And, second, keep alive the light of hope to create a breakthrough — however small it could be — in inter-Korean relations next year.