Stable Transition or Fumbling Majesty? : When Kim Jong Un Met the Chinese VP

By | May 14, 2012 | No Comments, in collaboration with NK Leadership Watch, is currently concluding a major investigation of North Korea’s relations with China in the last two months of Kim Jong Il’s life.  This process will culminate with the release of a substantial database and analysis, which we are including as third in a series of China-North Korea Dossiers. Previous dossiers focusing on China and North Korean succession were released this past January (#1) and February (#2), respectively. We are particularly pleased that Dossier #3 will feature a preface by Stephan Haggard.

Completing the dossier and inspired by the distant knee-wrenching fury of the American basketball playoffs, our Chief Editor has been breaking down North Korean and Chinese film footage of PRC Vice Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Pyongyang last October.  Along with a Mao-inspired comparison (between North Korean attitudes toward Kim Il Sung and Tibetan reverence for the Dalai Lama), and some reportage from outside the DPRK Embassy in Beijing, Cathcart’s post contains some reflection on the content of the film and what it may augur for Kim Jong Un’s standing with his main foreign ally.  — Charles Kraus, Managing Editor

Stable Transition or Fumbling Majesty? : When Kim Jong Un Met the Chinese VP

by Adam Cathcart

One of the many questions we have asked in the process of analyzing the available evidence of the eighteen major North Korean interactions with China (October-December 2011), to be chronicled in Document Dossier #3, is:

To what extent has Kim Jong Un interacted with the Chinese leadership, and under what circumstances?

Answering this question gives us at least a handful of data points to consider with respect to a couple of two consequential related questions:

1. Does Kim Jong Un really wield power in North Korea?

(For whatever reason, this has been quite a hot topic in the Chinese press, which is to say, its discussion has been actively encouraged by the Chinese Communist Party since Kim Jong Il’s death.)

2. If Kim Jong Un does wield power, then what is his attitude toward China, and, is it substantively different from that of his father?

(This is a rather more controlled topic in the Chinese press which tends to be discussed primarily by official think-tank academics like the solidly conservative Lv Chao, he of the “refugees are not a human rights issue” argument vs. the recently rather free-wheeling pragmatist Zhu Feng, he of the “I don’t think Kim Jong Un will last 20 years” argument.)

As to the first question, who knows?  We have to assume he does, with the evident aid of all the usual suspects, and with a genetic predisposition towards management, late-night work binges, purges and on-site inspections.

Midnight Study for the Successor | From 19:51 of the linked January 2012 biopic

As to the second question – that of Kim Jong Un’s attitude toward China – it has been asked far less often than we would like.  This question would, after all, appear to be consequential for certain arguments made with great conviction and scope after Kim Jong Il died, most conspicuously by Victor Cha, a man who ought to be granted major respect (nothing like an assistant professor ankle-biting a former White House official), but about whose recent assertions of North Korea being swallowed wholesale by China we tend to agree with Elizabeth Economy when she rather tactfully associates them with the word “radical.”

In other words, shouldn’t analysts who denounce Kim Jong Un’s reign as tyrannical in one breath and assert with the next that China is absorbing North Korea as a fourth northeastern Chinese province be obliged to put the twain together?  If Kim Jong Un is a dictator, he has control of the country’s foreign policy, or at the very least, passively presides over the selling out of North Korean prestige and mineral resources to the Chinese leadership and vulture capitalists — who are presumably reaping unlimited profits via unregulated shipments of coal from North Korean partners who always pay on time – and, if so, isn’t there some political consequence for Kim Jong Un taking the path of more or less accepting Chinese economic hegemony?

Or, as usual, is North Korean despotism the catch-all answer for everything?  “Kim Jong Un,” says the argument which bites its own tail, “can sell out North Korea to the ChiComs (the American-argot equivalent of calling the US 美帝, it’s not nice!)  precisely because he is not accountable to anyone, and North Korea, Mr. Harrison, does not have ‘politics.’”

Is there nothing wrong with this picture?  Is it really possible for a young dictator with shaky claims on experience or legitimacy in North Korea to simply hand over the keys to his country’s economy to the Chinese Ambassador, or the Chinese Vice Premier when the latter comes from Beijing to pay homage to the dead leader and – to wrap a Tibetan idea used with exquisite precision by Mao Zedong in 1956 with reference to Kim Il Sung – recognize, Panchen Lama-style, the latest Kimist reincarnation in the form of a preternaturally brilliant child found near a mountain lake in Switzerland? [1]

Rumors that Kim Jong Un’s great feats, including his trademark fireworks show, were orchestrated by Chinese do not to do wonders for the young man’s stature and desire to be seen as independent apostle of the ideology of self-reliance – bankrupt though that ideology might be, as B.R. Myers argues so persuasively in a curiously under-cited essay. [2]

Thus the symbolism of any meeting of Kim Jong Un with his Chinese (overlords? sponsors? partners? betrayers? frenemies? puppet masters? neo-colonial Governor Generals? adversaries?) visitors takes on some significance.

But I doth protest too much.  The hardwood calls. What can we learn from studying the tape?

1. No official photo was released of Kim Jong Un’s handshake with Li Keqiang, although a photo was taken.

2. Kim Jong Un doesn’t speak Chinese and is reliant on an interpreter.

“The Fumble”: Cameras trained for the handoff, Kim Jong Il (vinylon smear, behind the Chinese Vice-Premier) absent-mindedly shuffles away, and Kim Jong Un goes power grip while looking at his interpreter. Richard Nixon drew this kind of stuff up _on notecards_ a week in advance.

3. Li Keqiang, having ”greeted” Kim Il Sung’s embalmed body in what was surely a chilly mausoleum that morning, greets the DPRK leadership in the following order: Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un, General Ri Yong Ho.  (Or, to be glib, he greets dead dictator, soon-to-be-dead dictator, spitting image of dead dictator #1, General with the rockets.)

4. Li Keqiang then had a small-scale private meeting with Kim Jong Il in an adjoining room in which neither Kim Jong Un nor General Ri participated.

Kim Jong Il makes a point to his interpreter at a small meeting with Li Keqiang, no Kim Jong Un to be seen

5. Kim Jong Un, at the banquet that followed, sat next to the Chinese Ambassador, whom he had already met; unlike dad, he appeared to make no toasts or speeches.

6. While Kim Jong Un is placed next to Premier Li Keqiang in the official photo of the meeting (in which his sponsor General Ri does not appear), he did not participate in the more hands-on session with Premiere Choe Yong Rim and Li Keqiang two days prior, nor were there, to our knowledge, high-level PRC security officials along on the trip to meet with Kim Jong Un on the subject of border security, although the successor had supposedly been tasked with this as well.

Consider these data points, disconnected though they surely are, with regard to the question of who was really running the show before Kim Jong Il died, and how much power Kim Jong Un really holds today.

At the very least, from the perspective of what we might call “optics,” Kim Jong Un’s evident exclusion from the meeting with Li Keqiang as well as the failure to release a photo of him greeting the Chinese leader (with a serious power handshake, no less) indicate that one or both of the parties seemed to think that Kim Jong Un should not be at center stage.

Further consider the fact that, the day after Li Keqiang left Pyongyang, North Korean media — for the first time– began to refer to Kim Jong Un monumental personage as “General.”  After Kim Jong Il died, we were told not to worry, because the young man had been running the state since just about exactly then, late October, precisely coinciding with the Chinese Vice Premier’s junket to Pyongyang.


If Kim Jong Un was really all that, then wouldn’t he have had the right to sit at the little six-party table with his dad and the very Vice-Foreign Minister of the PRC that would scold his government about a missile test just six short months later?

Or is all of that just minutiae? Of course, it very well might be.  But a single spark can start a prairie fire, and a single patch of weeds at an amusement park can trigger a political campaign.  And until Kim Jong Un starts leaking e-mails to a journalist in Tokyo, or Li Keqiang suddenly turns into Zhao Ziyang, it is what we have to deal with.

Coda |  We received information from a source in Beijing in July 2009 that Kim Jong Un had indeed traveled secretly to the Chinese capital to meet with Chinese leaders. This information was impossible to verify at the time, but it was alluded to a week later by a headline story in the Huanqiu Shibao.  However, within the three-day this was alleged to have happened, a walk around the North Korean embassy in Beijing revealed a few things.

There were two well dressed, tall and clearly elite North Korean women in their 20s smoking cigarettes outside a Russian beauty salon across the street from the DPRK embassy. On the same day, a small 4-door Honda Civic vintage 1991 with a crude black spray paint job with diplomatic plates was also double parked outside the embassy –  the vehicle for the successor’s introduction to the lap of luxury in Beijing? Unlikely, because there was a much newer Honda Civic which I saw the Foreign Minister being driven around in not much later, yammering on a cell phone while his black-stockinged foot was lazily propped up on the dashboard.

These are but data points from personal observation, which in combination of reading of the Chinese press from that summer, would appear to indicate that, in fact, something was going on, but it would be impossible to say what that was. (Please note that my analytical chops are not so slavering as to declare that a tall tale told over drinks in a North Korean restaurant, a couple of attractive women without Kim pins hanging out in Chaoyang, a double-parked jalopy, and a story in the Huanqiu Shibao do not a successor-in-Beijing story confirm, at least for me.) Unfortunately my walkabout did not last all day, as I had to chase the as then yet-unseen kid’s grandfather through the archives at the Chinese Foreign Ministry.  These documents include a rather fascinating and somewhat fruitless effort in 1953 by North Korean cultural bureaucrats to travel through Northeast China to “collect revolutionary relics” and testimonies about Kim Il Sung’s greatness (no discussion whatsoever of Kim Jong Suk, whose revival coincided with Kim Jong Il’s nasty climb to prominence), but that is another story altogether – “Footsteps,” indeed!

Holy Scriptures / Den Heiligen Schrift : The Camera Pans Lovingly over Kim Il Song’s Military Treatises | January 2012

[1] Mao is meeting with the Panchen Lama in 1956, and swivels to address Zhang Jingwu and Fan Ming, two of the main leaders in the (not-yet) autonomous region , who are sitting there: “You should not only say Long Live Chairman Mao in Tibet.  This is not good.  Do not only hang portraits of Chairman Mao, but also hang the portraits of the Dalai and Panchen lamas, because this is a custom of Tibetans.  Every nationality has its own leader.  It is very good that Tibetans have leaders like the Dalai and Panchen.  For example, Kim Richeng [Kim Il-Song/金日成] is the leader in Korea.  When you try to do things in Korea, you have to respect him.” [Quoted in Melvyn Goldstein, The History of Tibet, Vol. 2: The Calm Before the Storm, 1951-1955 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 508.]  Truer words were never spoken.

[2] B.R. Myers, “Ideology as Smokescreen: North Korea’s Juche Thought,” Acta Koreana 11, no. 3 (2008): 161–182.

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