China-North Korea Succession Tiff?

The Asahi Shimbun again stirs the pot with a compelling report on Sino-North Korean relations, making some new assertions that China opposed North Korea’s hereditary system of succession recently and this past May.  Asahi’s sources indicated that North Korean grey-eminence-behind-the-throne Jang Song-taek may have twice traveled to Beijing in the May-June 2009 window both before and after the DPRK exploded a bomb on the Chinese frontier and as a means (allegedly) of preparing the way for would-be–successor Kim Jong-Eun to travel to Beijing.

I was in Beijing hanging around the North Korean embassy on the day the successor was supposedly in town; one of my sources in China (for what it’s worth) later stated that he had dinner with Kim Jong-Eun and was impressed with his intelligence.

The Daily NK covers the action here in English, but nothing is better than the Asahi’s graphic:

courtesy Asahi Shimbun

More to the point, China is reacting fast to the news, elevating the Foreign Ministry’s spokesman response to a press question on the report.  Since it isn’t yet available in English, I’ll render it here:

问:据日本《朝日新闻》报道,去年5月份朝鲜进行核试验后,中国要求朝鲜核,实施改革开放,并建议取消朝鲜的领导人世袭制。报道还称,6月份朝鲜秘密派遣金正日的接班人金正恩访华。请证实。 Question: According to a report by Japan’s Asahi Shimbun, in May of last year, after North Korea went ahead with its nuclear test [in spite of] China already having asked North Korea to renounce nukes and carry out reform and opening up, [China] suggested that North Korea eliminate its system of hereditary leadership.  The report also states that in June [of 2009], North Korea secretly sent Kim Jong Il’s successor Kim Jong Eun to China.  Please confirm.

答:有关报道是完全不属实的。中方奉行不干涉别国内政原则,我们不会对其他国家内政事务进行干涉。我们希望朝鲜走适合本国国情的发展道路,在国家建设中不断取得新的更大的成就,希望中朝友好关系不断向前发展。 Answer: These reports are completely unverified.  The Chinese side operates on the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries; we are unable to interfere in the internal political affairs of other countries.  We hope that North Korea develops on a path appropriate for its national conditions, that national construction continues uninterrrupted and gains new and greater success; [we] hope that Sino-North Korean friendly nieghborly relations will not be hampered and continue to move forward and develop.

关于金正恩访华,去年我已多次作出澄清。有关报道好像又在暗示我,这个“可以有”,但我的回答是:“这个真没有”。  Regarding the visit of Kim Jong-Eun to China, last year I already clarified this many times.  It seems as if the related reports are back again to suggest to me that “there could have been,” but my response is “there really weren’t.”

Source: Huanqiu Shibao, online headline “中方否认压朝放弃领导人世袭 [Chinese Side Does Not Pressure North Korea to Abandon its Leadership Succession]” which brings one to longer extracts of the MFA Press Conference entitled “外交部就中美关系奥巴马会见达赖等答问 [MFA on Sino-U.S. Relations, Obama’s Visit with the Dalai Lama, and other issues]”

China Times covers it here (in traditional Chinese) and “Secret China,” a site I’ve never seen before, has a report (in simplified Chinese) here.

And speaking of Chinese characters, there seems to have been a change in how mainland media spell the unseen successor’s name: Whereas before it was 金正云, now they’re going with 金正恩.  Perhaps someone from the DPRK Embassy called Xinhua or the Foreign Ministry?  Opacity abounds.

But maybe North Korea is really mad about this story going public, and they are certainly sensitive about Chinese meddling in their court politics.  Perhaps that’s why, after a huge barrage of gifts listed as sent to Kim Jong-il for his birthday from around the world, KCNA writers stopped and made it sound as if the only thing China sent was a floral basket to the DPRK embassy in Beijing from a private citizen who had ties to the Kim family in its guerilla years.  You gotta know who your friends are…

Newsstand across from Ritan Park and the DPRK Embassy in Beijing -- where North Korean diplomats pick up their Huanqiu Shibao -- photo by Adam Cathcart


  1. Adam,

    I don’t know what to make out of this. The Japanese media have had a rather poor track record with regard to covering “breaking news” out the DPRK. Remember the so-called “Kim Jong-un sighting” a couple of years ago? Turned out it was some South Korean guy who bears some resemblance with the Dear Leader. How about the Japanese media report (I forgot from which one, perhaps Yumuri Shimbun?) several years ago claiming that the Dear Leader has secretly received approval from China and Russia to hold on to its nukes?

    By the way according to Chosun Ilbo the correct hanja for Kim Jong-un should be 金正銀. This is one confusing part/deficiency about Hangul that constantly trouble us outsiders. Of course, the North Koreans being so nationalistic as they are do not care.

    1. JCM, I seem to recall you hammering away at this on a thread on a different blog by raising the example of Kim Jong Il’s visit to a duck restaurant in Beijing in 2001 — the idea being that paparazzi were ubiquitous even in China, and that Kim Jong-un wouldn’t be able to escape. But escape he did! (Or perhaps he never made it.) It’s going to be something when and if he actually emerges into the light of day…

      And you’re completely correct on the hanja thing! But what would his grandfather say? Kim Il Song at least had some interesting handwriting, whereas the grandson seems more keyboard and technician oriented by all accounts.

      Thanks for the insights.

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