BEIJING – Just when and how the North Korean regime will end cannot be predicted. Its demise could come via a military coup or a palace coup; a worker uprising or a peasant uprising; a consequence of economic failure or something that simply reflects the banality of the entire place. But one element of the Kim dynasty’s end is certain: China will have abandoned it.
It is always difficult to assess what is going on in North Korea, which seems to regard its opaqueness as a national-security asset – routinely keeping foreign observers guessing about even mundane issues like the precise date of current leader Kim Jung-un’s birthday.
There was nothing opaque, however, in the sudden purge and swift execution earlier this month of Jang Song-thaek – or Uncle Jang as the media have taken to calling Kim’s not-so-avuncular one-time regent. The 67-year-old über-bureaucrat was removed from his front-row seat at a Politburo meeting by two security guards and escorted out of the room. Within days, he was tried, convicted, and dead – a model of judicial efficiency. “Kill the chicken to scare the monkey,” the old Asian proverb goes. But why bother with the chicken when you can just kill the monkey?
Having been banished twice, Jang’s emergence as a regent to the boy king seemed to confirm his status as a North Korean Talleyrand capable of surviving anything and anyone. But he was considerably less conspicuous during his young charge’s second year in power. After standing at Kim’s side during every ribbon-cutting ceremony in 2012, he was nowhere to be seen in 2013.
Perhaps Kim’s motives for purging Jang can be found in Shakespeare’s oeuvre. What is clear is that Kim wants to be in charge, and has no patience for anyone who would suggest otherwise. Indeed, the sin of insufficient loyalty – Jang was noticeably absent during the spring, when Kim threatened war against his neighbors and the United States – seemed to loom large. In North Korea, half-hearted clapping can be a capital offense.
If anyone can make one long for the tender mercies of Kim Jong-il’s reign, it is his son, Kim Jung-un. There is little evidence that the younger, let-them-eat-chocolate-cake Kim has the slightest interest in reform or alleviating North Koreans’ suffering. But Jang was no reformer. Rather than worrying about the country’s food supply, he reportedly had broad responsibility for steering the Kim family fortune through a labyrinth of bank accounts on several continents. He was also well known for helping Kim Jong-il create North Korea’s nomenklatura – the complex system of patronage, part and parcel of communism, that ensures officials’ loyalty to the regime.
And yet Jang’s trips to China have often been cited as evidence of his interest in a Chinese model of economic reform. That seems far-fetched. It is far more likely that his interest in China reflected his hands-on approach to the regime’s finances (and perhaps his own). Indeed, as China begins to address its own transparency problems, it might want to examine some of the dubious deals made with Jang and his cabal.
If Jang had been some sort of enlightened thinker, one would expect to have seen some signs of reform by now. Apart from an on-again, off-again private market in the capital, Pyongyang, as well as the occasional side-of-the-road vegetable market, there are scant signs that North Korea is reforming, or that anyone in the leadership is (or was) pushing for it.
True, one can find a new hotel or two. During a visit in the autumn of 2008, my negotiating team and I checked into a brand new, modern “Japanese-owned” hotel (there certainly were no Japanese there), watched the US vice-presidential debate on satellite-fed CNN, and in the evening enjoyed a European beer. In Eastern Europe in the 1980’s, such an anecdote might have been interpreted as a bellwether of deeper systemic change; in North Korea, it seemed more like a foray into the preserve of the country’s gangster elite.
The purge of Jang should not deter the international community from pressing for denuclearization of North Korea. Those who seem more interested in disproving the case for negotiation than in disarming North Korea should reflect on the fact that their ultra-realism has aided and abetted a regime dedicated to the proposition that eventually the world will come to accept its nuclear status.
In the absence of change in North Korea, those who refuse to accept the legitimacy of its nuclear-weapons program have understandably sought help from China. And, while China has turned toward a tougher policy on North Korea at a frustratingly glacial pace, there is no question that it is moving. A trip to China in the wake of the brutal purge of Jang reveals a country that has become embarrassed and disgusted by the North Koreans’ behavior. Moreover, China is gradually coming to the view that its coziness with and excuse-making for North Korea, more than its endless maritime disputes with everyone else in the region, is emerging as the major factor in how the world regards its rise.
But change in China takes time, and many old habits must be overcome. For centuries, China’s foreign policy has been characterized by the belief that the enemy of an enemy is a friend.
That will not be enough to deal with North Korea; nor can it be the basis for China’s relations with the world in the future. China has a direct and long-term interest in membership in the international system. How it handles its responsibilities in North Korea is very much related to its broader aspirations.