Bloomberg News

China Aims to Cement Kim Jong Un Succession as Aid May Increase

December 21, 2011

Dec. 21 (Bloomberg) -- China may move to bolster a dynastic succession in neighbor North Korea, propelled by the need to preserve the stability that’s seen it become the world’s second- biggest economy.

President Hu Jintao will probably offer more economic aid to North Korea to strengthen the hand of Kim Jong Un, who must now consolidate power after his father Kim Jong Il’s death on Dec. 17, said Paul Haenle. He served as the White House National Security Council’s China director in the Bush and Obama administrations.

The cost for the U.S. and South Korea may be less Chinese attention to restarting six-party talks over North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program. Topping the list of possible Chinese objectives is avoiding unrest that could disrupt regional trade and prompt a wave of refugees to cross the 880-mile (1,416- kilometer) border it shares with North Korea.

“China sees it on two tracks,” said Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, in a phone interview. “You’ve got a denuclearization track and another track which is all about maintaining stability and ensuring the consolidation of power. The denuclearization track will be put on hold.”

A North Korean collapse could jeopardize China’s trade with Japan and South Korea. They are its third- and fourth-biggest trading partners after the European Union and the U.S., with combined two-way trade amounting to $536.8 billion in the first 11 months of the year, or about 10 percent of China’s GDP, according to Chinese customs statistics.

Transfer of Power

The transfer of power in North Korea comes less than a year before Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao are themselves scheduled to begin handing over authority to a new generation of Chinese leaders, underscoring the need to avert a collapse next door.

Hu visited North Korea’s embassy in Beijing yesterday to express condolences over Kim Jong Il’s death. China would also welcome a visit by North Korean leaders when convenient, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said at a briefing yesterday.

“We believe that the North Korean people will unite closely around the Workers’ Party of Korea under the leadership of Kim Jong Un, and will build a strong socialist nation and continue to progress toward long-term peace on the Korean peninsula,” Liu told reporters in Beijing.

“Secure Backer”

Editorials in state-run Chinese newspapers yesterday stressed the need for a stable leadership transition, with the Global Times saying China should be “a powerful and secure backer for a smooth transition of power.” The newspaper suggested that high-level Chinese leaders visit North Korea to maintain “close communication” with its new leadership.

“Pyongyang’s commitment to peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula is in its own interests and best serves its regional responsibilities,” a China Daily editorial said.

China is expressing its support for Kim Jong Un to make sure it maintains its influence over the regime in Pyongyang, which is increasingly dependent on China for political and economic support, said Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, in an e-mail.

China will move to “boost links with the North Korean generals in the new Kim Jong Un dynasty,” Lam said. “Beijing will likely promise Pyongyang more generous economic, fuel and technological support in order to shore up the alliance -- and to ensure the pro-China tilt of the post-Kim Jong Il administration.”

Food Imports

China accounted for 79 percent of North Korea’s 2009 international trade, according to the Seoul-based Korea Trade- Investment Promotion Agency. China provides almost 90 percent of energy imports and 45 percent of the country’s food, according to a 2009 report from the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

North Korea’s economic and political dependence on China, its biggest trading partner, grew under Kim Jong Il. In September, China’s exports of kerosene, a fuel used for heating and cooking, rose to 14,151 tons, the most since April 2009. Two-way trade last year rose to $3.47 billion, a 29 percent gain from 2009, according to Chinese statistics. It was $630 million in 2001, according to the Xinhua news agency.

China would now like Japan, South Korea and the U.S. to make friendly overtures to North Korea to lower the chance for conflict, said Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Peking University.

Positive Gesture

The Chinese government feels “it is high time for the international community to reach out to the new government,” Zhu said. Not making a positive gesture “will create the perception that they would prefer to see the regime collapse rather than working on a productive approach,” Zhu said.

China’s ties with North Korea, forged over a six-decade alliance stemming from China’s entry into the Korean War on the north’s side in 1950, translate into real influence when China chooses to exercise it, Haenle said.

Kim Jong Il made at least three trips to China in the last two years. Chinese Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang stood at a rostrum in Pyongyang on Oct. 10 2010 with Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea and review a military parade.

The night before, tens of thousands of performers, some in panda costumes, feted Zhou at Pyongyang’s May Day Stadium. They waved placards with slogans such as “without the Communist Party there would be no new China.”

One display of China’s influence occurred in 2008, when North Korea threatened to restart processing weapons-grade plutonium unless the U.S. took it off a terrorist blacklist, Haenle said. North Korea’s announced restart date fell during the August 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

The U.S. had no success in talks, said Haenle, who was working in the White House at the time. So officials turned to the Chinese and told them about North Korea’s plan to restart processing plutonium during the Olympics.

“Next thing you know, the day comes when they were supposed to start reprocessing, and they didn’t,” Haenle said. Speaking of China’s leaders, he said: “We don’t know exactly how they did it. But they did it.”

--Michael Forsythe, with assistance from Regina Tan in Beijing. Editors: Nicholas Wadhams, Anne Swardson

To contact Bloomberg News staff for this story: Michael Forsythe in Beijing at mforsythe@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Anstey at canstey@bloomberg.net


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