Kim Jong Il Dies in His Train: Updates

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  17, 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:


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。[ Translation forthcoming ]

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.

Update 4: Lu Chao, as predicted above, weighed in yesterday on Huanqiu Shibao. As with the preceding entry on the unnamed Chinese diplomat, Lu notes that the succession system in North Korea is not particularly problematic.  However, Lu is somewhat more transformationalist in his rhetoric:

新闻报出朝鲜领导人金正日去世的消息,令人很感意外。朝鲜是中国的友好国家,金正日在最近不到1年的时间连续3次访问中国,对中朝两国的友好是做出很大贡献的。金正日是朝鲜最高领导人,他的去世有可能引起国内权力的变化,或者说,是暂时真空下条件下的权力变化。很多人也在关注这个事情。[ Translation forthcoming ]




Hu Jintao went to the North Korean Embassy this morning to “offer condolences” upon the death of Kim Jong Il.  The Xinhua dispatch about this event was literally one sentence long, so no sign of who received Hu Jintao — making unclear if the North Korean Ambassador, much less the DPRK’s top “America hand” Li Gun, who was in Beijing on December 15 to negotiate food aid with the US, was in fact even in the building.

In a subtle reminder of China’s Dengist aspirations for North Korea today, Huanqiu TV relased a four-minute retrospective on Kim Jong Il’s sometimes racous first visit to China in 1983.  Presumably the footage of the then-putative successor with Deng Xiaoping in Beijing serves both as a reminder of China’s steady support for the idiosyncratic North Korean political system, but also as a means of envisioning that meeting that is sure to take place at some point in the not-too-distant future between Kim Jong Eun and Xi Jinping.

Yesterday (December 19), an envoy at the DPRK Embassy in Pyongyang surnamed Park [临时代办朴明浩] received a communication from Yang Jiechi, the head the three hundreed meters or so to the PRC Foreign Ministry for a meeting with the head of that gargantuan bureaucracy, Yang Jiechi.  The text of the message is summarized as:



The North Korean response to this communication is worth noting, as it includes express reference to “uniting around Kim Jong Eun”, which then becomes the headline for the story in China:


Taking a break from all the official-ese, Sinostand has a nice roundup of some Chinese netizen chatter on Weibo in response to Kim’s death (link via JustRecently)

Charles Armstrong’s obituary published on CNN is the first to raise, if only briefly, the Kim Il Song standard of success for Kim Jong Il.  If the testimonials in books like Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy or Dominic Morillot’s galvanizing Evades de Coree du Nord are any indication, there are some deep reserves of nostalgia in the DPRK for the Kim Il Song years, prior to the famine that erupted after his death and the rips that occurred in the social safety net.  To the extent that Kim Jong Eun can, with Chinese aid, begin a kind of “return to the past” to fulfill that old pledge of meat and kimchee in every pot, he might be more acceptable than his own father, all South Korean information to the contrary notwithstanding.

International Institute for Security Studies has a nice edge on the freak-out side of the ledger: war could break out at any time.  These views are summarized in a July 2011 podcast, and a very helpful free pdf. book chapter about domestic dynamics in North Korea.

Back to the PRC: This Huanqiu leading op-ed for the day on North Korean stability and change has already picked up 214 comments, with more to come.  And more translations and analysis to come in this space.

Update 5: A Huanqiu Shibao reporter (which could be Chen Gang or Zhou Yiran, two Pyongyang hands on the staff) spent some time driving around Pyongyang today, and filed an interesting report which makes the following clear: No Army soldiers are visible on the streets, and construction is continuing on the city’s ambitious apartment buildings for 2012.  Apart from that, descriptions of the large numbers of people flowing by foot to the Kim Il Song statue on Manggyongdae to pay wordless tribute; the old often cannot stand. No one talks to one another at these gatherings, others writhe around on the ice, and many do not want to leave.

Chinese media outlets are now relaying South Korean reports that the North Korean military fired off two long-range rockets over the East Sea/Sea of Japan on December 19, launched from South Hamgyong for a distance of about 120 km.  Obviously this complicates China’s efforts (as seen already in Lu Chao’s remarks, but are implicit and omnipresent) to depict American and South Korean provocations as the main obstacles to stability and peace on and around the Korean peninsula in this transitional moment.

In a Huanqiu BBS post by Luo Jianyi [罗竖一], a number of worrisome possibilities are raised. Luo is a kind of all-purpose Xinhua writer from Lanzhou, Gansu, hardly the voice of the Beijing consensus but a useful person to have around when you need an approved voice to deal in the open with some difficult possibilities; somewhere well below Lu Chao on the reliability scale but well above a normal netizen.








In a question only the French media would imply at such an early stage, Le Monde takes apart the North Korea propaganda apparatus, wondering how Mass Games and Arirang will continue to evolve under Kim Jong Eun.  (Recent events, by the way, put the dampers on what had been a warming bilateral informal relationship since 2009; France, along with Estonia, is the only European state not to have formal relations with the DPRK.)

Time to get started on the translations of the Chinese materials for readers who are interested in deciphering the specifics.

Update 6: Here is the full text of today’s (December 20) Huanqiu Shibao editorial about Kim Jong Il and his aftermath in North Korea:

朝鲜最高领导人金正日突然去世,中国迅速表示哀悼。这是东北亚的重要事件,无论朝鲜如何度过权力交替期,一些国家都会把这当成改变地区战略格局的契机,朝鲜的稳定和地区战略稳定都面临考验。中国此时的态度很重要。中国须坚决、明确地维护朝鲜的独立自主,保障朝鲜的权力过渡不受外部的干扰,保障朝鲜选择国家道路的自由。North Korea’s highest leader Kim Jong-il has suddenly died, and China quickly expressed its grief. This is a big event in Northeast Asia.  No matter what kind of changes in power North Korea goes through, some countries will all take this opportunity for change in their strategic posture in this region . North Korea’s stability and regional strategic stability is all being tested. China’s attitude is very important at this moment. China must clearly signal that it will protect North Korea’s independent self-rule, protect North Korea’s power from being disturbed from the outside, and protect North Korea’s freedom of choice for their national way. 

由于朝鲜新领导人金正恩比较年轻,一些国家对朝鲜剧变寄予期待,并有可能会为促成它的发生而采取各种行动。朝鲜是小国,放在普通的地缘政治条件下,不易承受压力。Because North Korea’s next leader Kim Jong Eun is relatively young, some countries expect huge changes in North Korea, and there is the possibility of stimulating the appearance of all kinds of actions and activities. North Korea is a small country, and to put North Korea into normal political conditions would make it very difficult for North Korea to accept the pressure. 

中国要坚决平衡外界对朝鲜施加的各种压力,做朝鲜权力平稳过渡的可靠后盾,在关键时刻为它遮风挡雨。中国态度明确所产生的力量,对朝鲜社会在过渡期保持战略信心绝非可有可无。China must establish an equal balance between the external countries’ pressure and North Korea, to be the power upon which North Korea’s stable power transition can rely at this key moment of strom and stress. China’s clear attitude and production of power, without any doubt, helps North Korean society keep strategically confident during the transition of power.  

朝鲜是中国的特殊战略伙伴,尽管其核问题等给中国带来不少麻烦,但中朝保持当前的友好关系,对我国获得周边稳定,对增加中国在东北亚、甚至在整个东亚的战略主动性都至关重要。North Korea is China’s special strategic partner. Although the nuclear problem has given China no small troubles, China and North Korea still maintain currently friendly relations, helping us with regard to stability on our borders, and playing an important and increased role in China’s strategic quality of action in Northeast Asia, or the whole of East Asia.    

中国国内一直有人认为中国为维系中朝关系付出了太多,而中国早已有过阿尔巴尼亚、越南的前车之鉴。这是给中国崛起的大战略算小账。国际关系从来此一时彼一时,中国用于交朋友的花费再怎么高,也比对付一个更恶劣战略环境有利得多,花费少得多。In China, there are some people who always think that China has helped North Korea too much in the relations, but China has “learned lessons from our predecessors” in experiences helping Albania and Vietnam. [Relations with North Korea] are just a little bit of money in [the context of] China’s rise and great strategic plan.  In international relations, epochs of history are not identical, and the cost of making friends is high, but would be much higher in worse strategic environment.   

事实上中国已为今天的中朝关系经营了几十年。如果中国任由其他国家和势力动摇中朝合作的战略根基,那才是中国外交的前功尽弃。这样的中国会被所有研究大国政治的人嘲笑。Actually, China today has kept relations with North Korea for so many decades.  If China were to let other countries disturb and change the basis for its strategy of Sino-North Korean cooperation, for China’s diplomacy, this would be to “relinquish the gains of past labor.”  

大国的战略信誉对中国越来越重要,中国要敢于为朋友担当,而不可在关键时刻退缩。这样,中国的朋友就会越来越多,反之会越来越少。The strategic trust [credit] of great countries is more and more important to China; China must do something for its friends, but it cannot retreat from the crucial point. In this way, China will have more and more friends.  If [it takes the other path], China will have fewer and fewer friends. 

从长远看,中国应该影响但不强制干预朝鲜国内的政治方向,尽量促成朝鲜走上正常、可持续的发展和安全之路。中国干涉朝鲜内政既累又不现实,但放弃影响则可能导致严重违背中国利益结果的出现。中国应长期做对朝鲜最有影响力的大国,但任何时候都不应试图对朝鲜国内政治进行操纵。Taking the long view, without forced intervention, China must influence North Korea’s internal political direction, trying its best to encourage North Korea in normal ways to take the path of sustainable development and security. Chinese intervention in North Korea’s internal affairs is a tired and unreal [cliche], but for China to give up its influence will obviously severely hamper the results of China’s advantages.

建议中国高级别官员及早以适当的名义赴朝鲜访问,在这个特殊时期保持与朝鲜新领导人的密切沟通,向平壤也向世界释放中国支持朝鲜权力平稳过渡的清晰信号。As soon as it is appropriate, Chinese high-level leaders will go to North Korea, and there they will intimately communicate with North Korea’s new leaders at this special time that Pyongyang can send a distinct signal to the world about China’s aid to North Korea’s peaceful transition of power. 

中国还应与俄罗斯加强协调对朝鲜半岛的立场,与韩美日及时通报朝鲜的情况和中国的态度,确保自己在后金正日时代的环朝鲜政治局势的构建中,处于积极主动地位,延续中国过去在朝鲜半岛问题上的独特优势。China still has to take a stance, along with Russia, toward the Korean peninsula, taking the attitude that North Korea should have increased cooperation with South Korea, the U.S., and Japan. In the environment of the post-Kim Jong Il era, amid North Korea’s construction of political power, China must continually actively position itself, continuing the past special successes of solving problems on the Korean peninsula.  

中国不必担心会因明确支持朝鲜平稳过渡,而导致与韩美日的紧张。恰恰相反,中国支持稳定、反对动荡的态度越明确,其他国家与朝鲜发生新摩擦的可能性就越小。这同样是中国让各方适应中朝友好不受朝鲜权力交班影响的过渡。说到底,中朝友好是当前东北亚保持稳定的重要基石。China does not need to worry that its support of a stable relationship with North Korea will cause worry to South Korea, the U.S., and Japan. China supports stability, takes an attitude of clear opposition to upheaval, and the possibility of outside countries having issues with North Korea is accordingly smaller.  Similarly, this means that Sino-North Korean friendship cannot be effected by the change of power in North Korea.  In a word, Sino-North Korean friendship is the most important cornerstone of today’s stability in Northeast Asia.     


  1. The SMH report is not surprising since Garnaut has serious connections and informants: his reports on dirty dealings in Chongqing which I have linked numerous times were not written after a quick flick thru the NYT and similar.

    Since this news broke, I have digested about four hours of media on the death of the DL, and I’m now seriously questioning the medias/policy wonks emphasis on” the deep and sincere grief” accompanying most reports. A few well heeled citizens in Pyongyang??

    Takes a while to lose the reflexive hardwiring and choreagraphy of loss (patented KT), but it has been known to happen.

    Just to be a contrarian, I’m also not buying the general narrative that the handover to the BL will be a seamless affair at all levels whatever the timeframe.

    Not one report thus far has thrown up any new perspectives….same old, same old.

    1. Thanks, KT, hope the new updates to this entry give you that perspective/info you have been seeking in vain on those other news sites. I’m holed up in the mountains in western Sichuan, great place to be if there’s a nuclear war, but not particularly close just yet to the DPRK.

  2. 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?


    Q: According to reports, Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s top leader, passed away on December 17th. What comment does the Chinese side have?

    A: We were suprised to learn of the unfortunate passing of North Korea’s top leader, Kim Jong-il. We express our deepest condolences and convey our sincere sympathy to the (North) Korean people. Comrade Kim Jong-il was a great leader of the Korean people, and a dear friend to the Chinese people. He made important contributions to the development of Korean socialism and good neighbourly relations and friendly Sino-Korean cooperation. We believe that the Korean people will can turn sorrow into strength, rally together, and continue pressing forward with the work of Korean socialism. China and Korea will work together, continuing to develop the traditional friendship between our two Parties, nations, and people, as well making positive contributions to the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and the region.

    — the last sentence was a mouthful, I really should have broken it up. I don’t read enough officialese or Xinhua/ Global Times, but this is probably close enough.



    1. Thank you, Kevin! Much appreciated. Trying to slog through the officalese is always an adventure. I’m aiming to have some updated translations in a big database out pretty soon.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s