On Kim Jong-un’s ‘Achievements’ and the North Korean-Chinese Relationship

This past December, many observers of the scene in northeast Asia had questions about the ‘three-year mourning period’ which was coming to an end, ostensibly, in North Korea. Since Kim Jong-il had been continuously eulogized and memorialized since his death, questions were being raised about Kim Jong-un possibly being seen as lacking in respect for his father. There were also questions about a possible change in course to the relationship with China — namely, could the two old socialist allies put the Jang Song-taek execution behind them?  Along with two colleagues at Leiden and Yonsei Universities, respectively (Remco Breuker and John Delury), I spoke with the South China Morning Post about these and other issues.

What do you think are Kim Jong Un’s biggest achievements in the past three years? How would you characterize his ruling style?

His main achievement is staying alive. This is the North Korean way of leadership dating back to the Manchurian guerilla experience and that of the Korean War — if you haven’t been destroyed, you win. So he’s managed to stay standing, and, to the state’s own narrative, managed to fend off a possible coup by Jang Song-taek, and further consolidate his control over the military and security apparatuses.

The country has pushed the narrative that he has raised living standards in the country, but I think this is arguable. He came in on the wave of a very small lift in North Korea’s economic fortunes and has been buoyed by more electric current flowing to Pyongyang. There has been relatively much more construction in Pyongyang and Wonsan than in previous years, but this is also very expensive to undertake, and it is unlikely that the regime’s pockets are limitlessly deep.

State propaganda has used things like the Moranbong Band — which is allegedly personally supervised by Kim Jong-un — to symbolize the combination of more affluent and worldly North Korean elites with the standard depictions of military might.

But apart from that, his ruling style is very much in the mould of his predecessors, to an almost clinical degree. If you read his speeches and watch his appearances closely, every opportunity is taken to fit himself into the mould of his father and grandfather — there is very little innovation happening here at the surface. Even his personal rock band is essentially there to glorify the previous Kims in ways which are highly predictable and reinforcing of the status quo.

There have been speculations that DPRK might launch a fourth nuclear test soon. If it did, what would be China’s reactions? And how would that affect the already cooling down bilateral relations?

I would be highly surprised if they did another nuclear test soon. The political calendar does not always dictate the scientific calendar or material limitations. In other words, the North Korean state does not possess enriched uranium in limitless quantities, nor can the process of miniaturization of nuclear warheads be rushed.

On the political side, they are already facing serious human rights pressure at the UN — unless we take their statements at face value in which censure on the human rights issues somehow in and of itself drives them to test, something I see as quite unlikely and unfeasible for them. There is more to be gained in threatening a test than actually doing one at the moment.

Kim Jong-un is also in need of demonstrating to the people that he’s focusing on economic improvement and living standards. While state propaganda very much squares the circle here by evoking to the ‘byungjin line’ and asserting that nuclear weapons are the guarantee for economic prosperity (presumably by preventing the state from being destroyed, not in stimulating GDP), a nuclear blast in the next couple of months would raise temperatures on the peninsula in a way that would not be helpful to the North Korean people, or the state that controls them.

The DPRK has been pushing diplomatic buttons as well, and a nuclear test now would likely scupper what limited recent progress they have made with Russia, and aggravate China pretty badly. It isn’t that the math is so simple that a North Korean nuclear test leads to China and Russia abrogating the veto at the UN Security Council over sending Kim Jong-un to the ICC, since neither Beijing nor Moscow wants to see that happen in any event, but this counterpressure is something to consider.

There seems to be a more public debate about whether China should change its policy towards DPRK (the Global Times have run a couple of commentaries arguing both for and against abandoning DPRK as a partner over the past few weeks), do you think this would in any case reflect policymakers’ thinking? Do the policymakers view it necessary to adjust its DPRK policy?

I think the policymakers in Beijing are happy to have the debate running in public because it gives them marginally more leverage over the North Koreans. Essentially, the leadership in Beijing can point to scholarly and press debates as evidence that a shift in policy could be forthcoming, without actually making that shift. To put it another way, the writing on the wall is not particularly good, but the wall (the Chinese-North Korean relationship) is still there. The PRC and DPRK governments still share many, many common interests. While the economic relationship is tilting so heavily toward South Korea, China will remain a status quo power with respect to North Korea.

Citation: Kristine Kwok, ‘Three Years after Becoming Leader, All Eyes on Kim Jong-un,’ South China Morning Post, 19 December 2014.

Image: Chinese delegation gives Kim Jong-il a birthday gift in early 2011, via the PRC Embassy in Pyongyang. 

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