After the Execution of No 2 Leader: An Analysis of Chinese Commentary on North Korea- Part I

Posted By July 7, 2014 No Comments

The world was stunned on December 13, 2013 by the announcement of the unexpected execution of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s uncle, Jang Song-Taek. Jang helped young Kim come to power two years ago, and was once considered the country’s second-in-command. North Korea’s major ally, China, already under pressure for its handling of the North’s nuclear issue, felt very much shocked by the news. Jang, who was allegedly pro-Beijing, could no longer appeal to the needs of China and facilitate economic co-operation between the two countries.

Among numerous Chinese commentaries on Jang’s downfall, an interview given by Zhang Lian-kui stands out as a comprehensive and elaborated overview of the events. The interview, organized by editor Huang Nan, was published on January 22, 2014 in Gongshiwang, a Beijing-based liberal academic website. Zhang’s in-depth commentary of the interview reflects the pragmatism of how a Chinese scholar assesses a political earthquake in this isolated country. He analyzes knotty issues ranging from China’s policy dilemma and miscalculation on the North’s nuclear effort to the prospects for the six-party talks. Professor Lian-kui balances the politics of China while being ostensibly tolerant toward Pyongyang’s political practices.

Zhang is professor of international studies at the influential Central Party School in Beijing specializing in North Korean issue at the influential Central Party School in Beijing. He studied at Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang for four years in the mid-1960s. Subsequently he served in China’s border security service and the army before becoming a North Korean specialist.

The professor has not been to the North in recent years due to his vocal criticism of Pyongyang’s nuclear policy saying, “it would be unpleasant if I were there debating with Korean comrades on nuclear matters.” [1]

Reliance on South Korea for News of the North

China’s media and experts generally rely on South Korea for information on the North because Pyongyang has a tight control over information. Professor Zhang noted that South Korea has gained the upper hand in gleaning information about the North since the both are of the same nation and use the same language. [2]

Chinese press did not mention Jang’s fate until South Korea’s media broke the news on December 3, 2013. Chinese media cited South Korea’s National Intelligence Service saying that an internal power struggle in Pyongyang possibly ended in Jang’s ouster. The South’s intelligence revealed Jang’s likely loss of power almost one week before North Korea’s official announcement on December 9, 2013. [3]

Chinese media and academic community are very much interested in more information from North Korea saying, “we are eager for more verified information from North Korea, but the North reveals too little to us,” and that, “North Korea’s news programs provide few details except for official slogans and rhetoric. Hence, our understanding of the North has been hindered in large degree.” [4]

As for research on North Korea, Zhang believes Chinese experts have done a pretty good job compared to their foreign counterparts saying how, “South Koreans go into great detail about the North, but, due to a lack of knowledge of the North’s social system and political culture, they often misread information, thus leading to misjudgement on how North Koreans cope with matters.” [5]

Given similar ideological backgrounds and historical experiences, the Chinese feel better able to interpret North Korean practices including censorship and the cult-like behaviors of political leaders. In American minds, for example, it is unbelievable that North Korea would be able to keep power and pursue nuclear arms in face of widespread famine that has claimed people’s lives. As Zhang explained, “in North Korea, however, the supreme leader is superior authority and the legitimacy of the government is not decided by ballots. In this way, the Chinese understand the issue better than others.” [6]

Reasons Behind Jang’s Downfall

Like Western media outlets and analysts, Chinese media and experts counted on the North Korean government communique as well as South Korean media for coverage of the Jang incident. Some analysts suggest that Jang’s removal could be a reflection of a split between supporters of the Songun military first policy and advocates of economic development. [7]

There were multiple factors leading to the demise of Jang Sung-Taek. Based on statements from North Korean, Zhang surmised that Sung-Taek politically disobeyed Kim Jong-un by not carrying out instructions to the satisfaction of the supreme leader. Jang was accused of forming, “a faction as the boss of a modern day factional group for a long time and thus committed such hideous crimes as attempting to overthrow the state.” [8] This suggests Jang was engaged in building his own power base. Being senior leader for years, Zhang noted, Jang was naturally surrounded with lots of cadres and followers which is taboo in North Korean political life. Jang was also involved in the rivalry of succession to the leadership and other anti-party acts. [9]

As head of the Central Administrative Department of the party Jang stretched, “his tentacles to ministries and national institutions. He converted his department into a ‘little kingdom’ which no one dares touch,” [10] the communique stated. Jang was in control of lucrative business like mining industry, fishery, and foreign trade that are otherwise subordinate to the cabinet or other organs and amassed huge assets. Clearly Jang’s acts infringed on other sectors’ interests. As the communique noted, Jang mismanaged foreign trade and economic co-operation, including selling material resources at cheap prices and leasing ports for fifty years to a foreign country, believed to refer to China.

Other accusations include illicit affairs with women, drug addiction, and maintaining an extravagant lifestyle. For instance, Jang took, “at least 4.6 million Euro from his secret coffers and squandered it in 2009 alone and enjoyed himself in casino in a foreign country.” Before his demise, Jang was regarded as the de facto second-in-command who held such key posts as politburo member, vice-chairman of the National Defense Commission, and chairman of the State Physical Culture and Sports Commission. [11]

Professor Zhang explained that Jang, as economic leader, was blamed for economic failures, reforms, and trade with China, explaining: “because of economic difficulty, North Korea has set a policy requiring each sector should try its best to run a business and turn over profits to the central leadership,” Zhang continued:

“as chief of the powerful Central Administrative Department, Jang controlled the public security, national security, armed police forces, and intelligence agency. The North’s firms in China are affiliated with a variety of sectors ranging from the military, public security to the Youth League and government agencies. Jang had done a lot work in the field.” [12]

Jang was reportedly responsible for signing agreements with China for developing two North Korean islands, Hwanggumphyong and Wihwa. Zhang believed from his perspective that Jang Sung-Taek could not make decisions on many matters himself, in spite of his position. For example, Jang could not have authority to state the length of port property lease because it concerns national sovereignty. Despite his lack of signing authority, Jang was still held accountable for political decisions out of his control. [13]

In the communique North Korea angrily noted that, “despicable human scum Jang, who was worse than a dog, perpetrated thrice-cursed acts of treachery in betrayal,” of the supreme leader. Zhang thought that condemnation was part of North Korea’s political culture which was characterized by strong hatred peppered with extreme rhetoric, saying, “it reminded me of China’s Cultural Revolution when Red Guards put up big character posters fraught with radical expressions.” [14]

North Korea’s Political Structure and Ideology

North Korea is built on what is termed ‘monolithic leadership system’ which cuts across the ruling party, government, and military. According to North Koreans, the party and the military are likened to the human arm and leg, while the supreme leader is the brain playing a decisive role. [15]

In North Korea, family background determines the fate of a person in society. For instance, those who joined Kim Il-sung in guerrilla war are natural revolutionaries and so are their descendants. Pyongyang has underscored the blood lineage of late Kim Il-sung, insisting it, “will remain unchanged and irreplaceable.” State-run media have also emphasized that Kim’s pedigree is the only one from this family entitled to be leader of the state. After the execution of Jang, the North is reiterating Kim Jong-un’s unique position as the supreme leader, “our party, state, army and people do not know anyone except Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un.” [16]

A cult of personality has elaborately been built around the Kim family for more than six decades. North Koreans, Zhang noted, wholeheartedly worship both current and late leaders because they believe the propaganda that proclaims the leaders have created and saved the country. Zhang recalls North Koreans genuinely crying over Kim Il-sung’s death. [17] Some Chinese wonder how a member of the now-defunct socialist bloc has become a hereditary state. Zhang notes that this complicated issue is beyond their comprehension to understand the peculiar historical, social, cultural, and environmental background that have given rise to such result. [18]

North Korea: Political & Social Control

On the viability of Pyongyang regime, Zhang noted the North has its own way to survive in face of economic plight and widespread famine. It has created a very comprehensive system to maintain control, among which the military performs a crucial role. The public security bureau, the armed police forces, and intelligence agency exert close control over the country which encompasses all walks of life.[19]

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union and its bloc, the North Korean economy deteriorated, including aid decreases and plummeting foreign trade. Widespread famine, known by North Korean media as the Arduous March, occurred in the mid-1990s. Pyongyang appealed to the world for food aid. However, after the North’s first nuclear test in 2006, the west sharply reduced support. Out of fears that aid might be diverted to the military, the international community demanded supervision that was subsequently refused by North Korea. The West continued to supply food on and off, lest a devastating famine hurt the ordinary people.

The Jang incident touches sets off speculation of a military coup in North Korea. When asked why no coup has occurred in North Korea so far, Zhang thought it hard to predict it, but is dependent on how the government carries out its political mission. In regard to treatment of political dissidents, Zhang attributed it to the North’s political tradition, national trait, and historical experience. In the 1950-60s, Zhang noted, North Korea harshly punished political factions. [20]

During that time pro-Beijing leaders either fled to China or ended up in jail while their supporters were punished. In 1955, two years after the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed, Kim Il-sung launched an anti-faction purge targeting Korean communists who joined Chinese comrades in northern China during the anti-Japanese war. It is known as the Purge of Yanan Faction. Yanan was the Chinese communist capital during the war.

Like most analysts, Zhang cautioned the world against fortune-telling on the political future of this most isolated country, “when Kim Jong-un took the helm two years ago, the world pinned higher hopes on him for changes, since Kim studied in Switzerland in his youth and saw the outside world. The people have gradually given up the ideas since then.” [21]