China’s Resurgent Warlords

OSAKA – Last December, the world was appalled by the North Korean government’s execution of Chang Song-thaek, an uncle-in-law of the young Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and the regime’s de facto second in command. Given Chang’s pivotal role in steering North Korea’s moribund economy, his execution raised serious doubts about the regime’s stability – raising fears of the collapse of a dynasty that possesses weapons of mass destruction. But, ultimately, Chang’s execution really affected only one other country, North Korea’s only international ally: China.

Five months later, there remains no clear account of the motivation behind the decision to eliminate Chang. Nonetheless, a series of in-depth analyses have offered some insight into the power struggle among North Korea’s leadership over the distribution of resources – including mining and other concessions – that are closely linked with the regime’s foreign policy.

Chang was known to have given priority to the regime’s economic survival over the development of nuclear weapons. China – North Korea’s sole supplier of oil and food – strongly supported this approach.

Why would the North Korean regime jeopardize its relationship with China, the only country that could bring it down immediately, just to execute one official? Assuming that Kim is rational, he must have had good reason to believe that the Chinese lifeline would be sustained, even if he executed China’s favorite North Korean interlocutor.