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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. 

Encountering the DPRK in Beijing

The North Korean embassy is set on a leafy walled campus in Beijing’s wicked and rambling Chaoyang district.  It lies in close proximity to China’s Foreign Ministry, that grey monolith where I work each summer.  The North Koreans have a small fleet of cars, mostly old.  I have seen them driving Nissan sedans, circa 1986, repainted by hand in a dark blue; some of the affiliated businessmen drive minivans of somewhat newer vintage.  On the day Kim Jong-un was supposedly in town, I scoped out the DPRK embassy to find a black and quite possibly broken 1990 Honda civic with mismatched side panels double-parked out front.  Once a new car glided out of the front gate, probably the ambassador’s, a silver Honda hatchback, the driver calm while his superior confidently chatted into a cell phone while resting a black-socked foot up on the dashboard.   For a country that allegedly despises the Japanese, it is interesting how Japanese goods are not only prized, but they spare the same North Koreans the humiliation of driving South-Korea produced Hyundais or, worse, American Buicks. 

A North Korean flag flutters forlornly over a stone national seal, marking as Korean the three banks of dormitories which house maybe a thousand itinerants and their family members.  A handful of businesses in the area cater to their tastes in sunglasses, Gucci knockoffs, and, especially, suitcases.  Here, North Korean poverty and prosperity illuminate themselves.  (Yes!  North Korean prosperity exists for some.  If this notion seems foreign, read some Sheila Fitzpatrick’s work on everyday life of careerists under Stalin.)  Consumption and trade seem to characterize the lives of some of the DPRK diplomats: no self-respecting diplomat’s wife will return to Pyongyang without a couple of huge suitcases stuffed with Chinese or Russian goods.  North Korean kids suck on Coca-Cola bottles as big as their arms, boys play with toy trucks, teenage daughters bereft of Kim pins or self-consciousness stumble out of Sichuan restaurants holding hands and satisfied.  As the girls saunter back to the compound, arm and arm, a North Korean worker between the high brick wall and the flimsy green fence, visible to the street, plucks a certain type of weed which he is apparently intending to cook.  The girls and the omnipresent Chinese keep on walking, but a high class North Korean lady stops in horror, clutching her purse, looking at him with disdain, furious for the potential loss of face.  Society reproduces itself in all the strange expatriate ways.

On one day that “the successor” Kim Jong-un was supposedly in Beijing, two Korean ladies who appeared to be about 27 years old stood outside a Russian salon across the street from the embassy, smoking languidly and talking.  Their rapid awareness of my presence (not to be confused with the muteness which often attends admiration) produced silence as I walked by.  Yet their location, inherent suspicion, and posture told me they were DPRK, in a pose of strategic complaint.  And it seemed they had newly arrived.  North Korean ladies who have been around in China for a period of time tend to be more relaxed around Westerners, in my observations.  (This was made most clear to me a few days later as I entered a little French-style café around the corner from the Embassy and plopped down directly next to two middle-aged North Korean ladies.  Although they were the only other people in the place besides the bored but knowledgeable Chinese servers from Handan, their conversation paid me absolutely no heed and centered around – what else – their sons and how they needed to work harder in school.)  But this made me wonder, for all the reports on Kim Jong Un, why we have heard nothing about his wife or love interest.  If he is married, it is possible that in the long run she may in fact be the real power behind the throne…

From the North Korean embassy, it is not possible to ignore the wealth of China.  The area around the embassy is being progressively swallowed by development.  Chinese townhouses and upscale stores have just been completed on the one side, and a gargantuan and grotesque modernist hotel/international center is rising like some Tyrannosaurus on the other.  If intimidation were needed, the vision of Chinese power is total.  But the North Koreans take it with equanimity and participate in it.  Kim Jong-un does not need some damned tour of Shenzhen to understand how China is blasting off economically, he simply needs to circumambulate the district around his country’s embassy for about an hour.