What Was Kim Jong-un’s Top Aide Doing in Beijing?

A fascinating item appeared recently in the Chinese press which explained that Ma Won-chun, a top aide to Kim Jong-un in North Korea, made a surprise visit to Beijing in early June. Naturally I had to translate it,  writing up a few thoughts along the way on the purpose of the trip, the historical background, etc. Fortunately, Christopher Green, who edits the “Jangmadang” series at Sino-NK, perceived it to be sufficiently newsworthy to merit its publication at that site. The introduction to the piece follows:

Ma Won-chun: Senior Kim Aide Appears in Beijing

by Adam Cathcart

Is Kim Jong-un ever going to take a trip to Beijing to meet his Chinese counterparts? The trendlines for such a bilateral meeting have been awfully poor of late. One of the most plugged-in Koreanists in Washington, DC, Scott Snyder (Council on Foreign Relations), recently wondered out loud if the lack of a bilateral meeting was a sign that both sides were willing to pack it in in their relationship; perhaps the inertia was such that no one in Pyongyang could move it forward (see video at 1:13:40).

Amid these doubts, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, will be making a trip to Seoul to meet South Korean President Park Geun-hye on July 3-4. There is a going to be a huge amount on the agenda in Seoul, and not a small amount of bilateral progress to discuss. Meanwhile, in the aftermath of Jang Sung-taek’s summary execution, North Korea appeared to move the goalposts on its Special Economic Zones with China, launched rockets that threatened Chinese commercial airliners, and required the PRC’s Foreign Minister to talk about “red lines.

While the overall outlook has been rather unencouraging, Chinese-North Korean relations have not been at an absolute standstill this calendar year. Small steps are being taken to keep the relationship and its various facets intact. The North Korean Ambassador in Beijing, Ji Jae-ryong,wasn’t purged along with Jang Sung-taek; he recently showed up at a party as well as as being guest of honor at a performance of the China Song and Dance Ensemble just before that group headed to the DPRK for more than a week. Tourism is picking up in small projects along the shared frontier, and new bridges are slated to be built. Kim Jong-un took a strange “dry run” for a state visit by acting out a red-carpet exit of his jumbo jet in an act of orchestrated political theater that almost made one forget that he had blown off the Mongolian President in Pyongyang and still has yet to have a proper bilateral with a fellow head of state.

The recent appearance of Ma Won-chun in Beijing is the strongest recent sign that Kim Jong-un is keen on heading to the Chinese capital at some point in the possible future. Ma is no ordinary envoy. He is the nominal brains behind Kim Jong-un’s building campaign, and recently appeared in a military uniform having made the leap to the National Defence Commission (국방위원회), a body which many analysts, North Korean diplomats, and the Socialist Constitution all identify as the supreme organ of power in North Korea.

Leading a delegation of some 21 people (including the DPRK Ambassador to China), Ma was identified as head (국장) of the DPRK’s National Defence Committee Planning Office (국방위원회 설계국). His journey was unofficial, not reported by KCNA, and nor was it in the Chinese media until very recently. Even then only one single event was reported, a June 10 visit to a library at a technical institute in Beijing that had taken place many days previously. What follows is a direct translation of the press dispatch about the event from the University, whose events homepage no longer lists it, but which Phoenix News, a mainland-friendly outlet based in Hong Kong and a solid venue for CCP voices who cannot be quoted in Xinhua for whatever reason, carried it in its entirety.

There is nothing earth-shattering here, unless it is the image of Kim Jong-un’s aide spending some time online and asking questions that might lead to further insights about online surveillance of students, a favorite activity at Chinese universities. Nevertheless, the notion of Ma’s visit going public at all is surely of note, and the size of his delegation, as well as the fact that he went as a representative of the National Defence Commission, is surely of import. We might further speculate about a possible meeting with Wang Jiarui, excursion to Zhongnanhai or the PRC Foreign Ministry, and whether Ma managed to conveyed to CCP counterparts something well beyond admiration for library computers: His boss’ desire to get on a plane to Beijing. One can only imagine what the response might have been.

Read the full translation at Sino-NK.

Preferred citation: Adam Cathcart, “Ma Won-chun: Kim Jong-un’s Senior Aide Appears in Beijing,” Sino-NK, June 27, 2014. 

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