Surveying the Post-Kim Jong Il Landscape from Beijing: Sources

By | December 19, 2011 | No Comments

About an hour ago at noon Pyongyang time, Korean Central News Agency reported that Kim Jong Il had died yesterday morning in his train “from overwork.”

A Chinese reporter, Zhao Shuguang [赵曙光], who described in earlier reports the North Korea leader’s desire to make it to age 70 in the year 2012, and who has also been accused of fabricating reports to favor the North Korean leadership, is on the phone periodically from Pyongyang on a grainy connection.

KCNA’s website is stuck on December 14, and the Chinese Embassy website’s dispatch from this morning describes Ambassador Liu’s wife’s activities with women’s organizations in commemoration of the 94 anniversary of the birth of Kim Jong Il’s mother, Kim Jong Suk.

In the next couple of days I wouldn’t expect a great deal of elaboration from Pyongyang, but China’s “North Korea hands” like Lu Chao in Liaoning should be out in force explaining what bedrock — and relationships —  the Sino-North Korean relationship is presently resting on.

Readers of this blog can expect some more in-depth look at recent Sino-North Korean ties and where things stood prior to the announcement of Kim’s death.  Unfortunately, I am not in Dandong or Yanbian at present, but am at least in the PRC to navigate through the next few days and weeks of news.

The King is dead!  And now Hamlet is in Pyongyang.

Update 2:

Chinese markets are down significantly at the news of Kim’s death, along with something causing an equal number of tears on the mainland — lower real estate prices.

Newspaper Liaoshen Ribao in northeast China quotes KCNA as having Kim’s death stemming from MI, or myocardial infarction.

Ri Chun Hee [李春姬], usually identified in media reports as “an emotional North Korean television anchor” had in fact just gone into retirement recently, and came back for the announcement of Kim’s death.  Certainly there is something more to this story than meets the eye — perhaps another signal of a generational changing of the guard at KCNA, among other things.

Peter Simpson at The Telegraph writes:

North Korea’s main ally China, announced his death through its state media, Xinhua.

The report listed Kim’s various titles and mentioned his last visit to economic zones and for talks in North East China in August.

Beijing has been propping up the Pyongyang regime with financial aid, and had been to trying to persuade Kim to toe-dip into market economics – with some degree of success.

China has been facilitating the Six Party denuclearisation talks after Pyongyang successful detonated a nuclear device in 2006, sending shock waves around the world.

Yet Kim was often a thorn in Beijing’s side with his various threats of war and random and isolated military attacks on the South.

China has been fully briefed on North Korea’s planned handing of power over to Kim Jong-un, and is seen to prefer a stable if poor North Korea.

CNN reports, with some commenatary by the ever-solid Mike Chinoy:

His funeral will be held December 28 and the national mourning period extends until December 29, said the [North Korean] news agency.

North Korean and communist party officials “released a notice on Saturday informing” members of the Workers’ Party of Korea, military “and all other people” of Kim’s passing, according to KCNA.

The best reporting I’ve seen yet on the Chinese response to Kim’s death comes from the Sydney Morning Herald, which notes:

This morning the North Korean embassy in Beijing lowered the national flag to half-mast while the country’s customs authorities immediately shut the busiest border crossing, at Dandong.

A manager at Golden Bridge Travel Agency, on the Chinese side of the border at Dandong, said the border had been shut because of Mr Kim’s death but expected it to re-open by January 15.

The Sydney paper was the only one thus far to send a reporter to the North Korean Embassy in Beijing, where diplomatic staff or their families were bargaining for flowers with local merchants.

Bloomberg carries the full text of a North Korean announcement-obituary here, e-mailed to news agencies.

In a slightly strange move, Global Times is republishing articles from last year (but dating them 19 December 2011) reminding readers that the Workers’ Party of Korea conference of late September 2010 had cleared the way for Kim Jong Eun to assume power along with a cast of assembled generals and family members.

Huanqiu Shibao has a news page up on Kim Jong Il.

More updates to come from the Chinese media.

Update 3: CCTV reports from outside the North Korean Embassy in Beijing (video, mainly of Japanese and South Korean reporters).

At a Ministry of Foreign Affairs press conference, the following was the longest official statement made yet by China about Kim’s death:

问:据报道,朝鲜最高领导人金正日于12月17日逝世,中方对此有何评论?

答:惊悉朝鲜最高领导人金正日同志不幸逝世,我们对此表示深切哀悼,向朝鲜人民致以诚挚慰问。金正日同志是朝鲜人民的伟大领导者,是中国人民的亲密朋友,为发展朝鲜社会主义事业,推动中朝睦邻友好合作关系发展作出了重要贡献。我们相信,朝鲜人民一定能够化悲痛为力量,团结一心,将朝鲜社会主义事业继续推向前进。中朝双方将共同努力,继续为巩固和发展中朝两党、两国和两国人民之间的传统友谊、为维护朝鲜半岛和本地区的和平稳定作出积极贡献。

DailyNK reports that a single source inside Musan, a coal city in North Hamgyong Province snug  up against some remote cliffs of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Region of the PRC, states that the streets of Musan are loaded with police, and no one has been allowed to leave their homes.  This is the kind of assertion that could be confirmed or denied rather simply by sight by a two hour taxi ride by a Western reporter in Yanbian, if there were such a person.

Probably in express counterpoint to the above story, Li Liang, a Huanqiu Shibao reporter, writes tersely that in the aftermath of Kim’s death, matters on the Sino-North Korean border are “completely normal, with no sign of any changes or strange movements.”  [一位中朝边境的知情人士19日向环球网记者透露,目前,通过在中朝边境线上的观察,朝鲜边境情况一切正常,没有任何变化和异动。]

Chinese media reports that, having set Kim Jong Il’s funeral for December 29, the North Korean government will not allow foreign delegations to Pyongyang to attend the funeral.

Chinese netizen commentary on Huanqiu is wildly mixed, with “50 cent” or North Korean commentators paying homage to the eternal revolution and friendship, and others calling North Koreans “politically brainwashed,” stating that “Fatty Kim [金胖子/Kim Jong Eun]” would soon be “starving his people,” and applauding “the grand drama which has only just begun.”

It’s worth noting that the number one story on Huanqiu, the hawkish Chinese foreign policy newspaper/website, is not at Kim at all, but about the strict mobilization of the South Korean military.  Huanqiu readers and the passively hawkish strand in Chinese public opinion is presently primed towards anger at South Korea thanks to a recent fishing incident off of Incheon; Kim Jong Il could have picked a worse time to die.  Japan also has to tread extremely cautiously in this context.

CCTV reporters in Pyongyang interview some tearful passerby in the North Korean capital.

The Chinese Embassy in Pyongyang has a short official response which includes praise of Kim Jong Il’s “development of Korean-style socialism.”

A rather quickly-produced piece by Tan Liya [谭利娅], one of Huanqiu’s Korea hands, describes the emphasis in CIA reports on Kim Jong Il’s strangeness, and quotes International Crisis Group’s excellent Korea hand Daniel Pinkston on the subject of Kim Jong Eun’s inexperience.  This is the one public/legitimately doubtful reference to the subject of the successor’s youth that I have yet seen in Chinese media since the announcement of Kim Jong Il’s death.

In a semi-official interview with “a diplomatic officer formerly stationed in North Korea” (my money is on the current PRC ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoyuan), some frank discussion of Kim Jong Eun is forthcoming.  While Kim Jong Eun is young, the anonymous source states, “from the standpoint of the North Korean system, that is no problem at all.”  This interview makes 100% plain, without relying on a potentially later embarassing statement by the Foreign Affairs Ministry or Wen Jiabao, that China is going to prompt precisely zero questions in public about the legitimacy of Kim Jong Eun.