I spent the month of April in northeast China, and had the opportunity to speak to several knowledgeable interlocutors about Sino-North Korean relations. In particular, the aftereffects of the purge of Jang Song-taek were of interest — at least as much interest as the rare materials I was able to pick up and research in Yanbian. In reviewing my notes for an upcoming talk at the Korea Economic Institute in Washington, D.C., I ran across the following two paragraphs from a typed summary of a structured conversation I had with an academic in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture. He’ll remain anonymous, but this fellow is very plugged-in and I am inclined to accept his point of view as rather well-grounded in fact.
With respect to Rason, our interviewee saw the Wen Jiabao visit to Pyongyang in October 2009 as key; after this, he asserted, Kim Jong-il personally traveled to Rason for the first time in 18 years. China lay down very clear conditons (成规) for DPRK to follow. But the DPRK was extremely indecisive in following through (朝鲜的不确定性还是很大). Summing up the impact of China’s (and Wen Jiabao’s) gamble on DPRK economic receptivity , he called it “a big loss for China” (大失望). With respect to Jang Song-taek, our interviewee saw him as “a bridge” between the two states, and self-evidently an economic leader in his own right. Jang’s purge created a new “obstacle (障礙)” for relations with China. It isn’t simply that Jang is gone, it is also to recognize the fact that it takes time to pair up with new partners (慢慢搭配) on the DPRK side, and so the recovery can hardly be expected to be instantaneous. The interviewee, noting that it was his personal deduction (推断), said he thought China had already been rather upset with North Korea in 2013 and that the nuclear test angered the CCP leadership and changed their calculus. Choe Ryong-hae’s visit to Beijing in May did little to assuage the Chinese emotion. There was also the matter of China canceling tourist visits in 2013, closing the border, and denying the other side currency, thereby demonstrating a certain level of pique which can be felt more palpably in the borderlands.