Monday, September 11, 2017

Why won't China abandon North Korea?

A few years ago I happened to read "Dear Leader" by Jang Jin Sung, one of the best books around about North Korea. Jang Jin Sung is probably the highest-ranking North Korean ever to have defected and told his story in detail. And his story is quite remarkable: he was an ordinary boy from a provincial town who became a writer and got coopted to work in the heart of the regime's propaganda department, creating propaganda aimed at South Koreans. He was lucky enough that one of his poems was praised by the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il himself, and he thus gained the class status of "Admitted" in North Korean parlance. He was then given the honour to meet Kim Jong Il in person, which is what first caused his faith in the system to start wavering. Brought up to believe that his country was governed by an almost god-like figure, when he discovered that Kim Jong Il was actually a very ordinary man who spoke in coarse language and used high heels to mask his short stature, the esteem in which he held his leader took a serious dent.

Although he lived a sheltered life in the capital, when Jang travelled back to his hometown of Sariwon and witnessed the effects of the last gasps of the famine that ravished North Korea in the late nineties, any remaining loyalty to the regime collapsed. While there he saw corpses lying unclaimed outside of the train station, and a farmer publicly executed in the town market for stealing some rice. It disgusted him when undernourished relatives and acquaintances asked him for information about the health and wellbeing of the "selfless Dear Leader" with genuine concern in their voices.

Jang made friends with a colleague who shared his distaste for the system he lived in, and when his friend accidentally mislaid "forbidden" reading material from the propaganda department in the Pyongyang subway, they were both forced to flee the country in 2004. After crossing the border into China and almost getting caught in the process, they were forced to lay low to avoid getting arrested by the police and sent back. Jiang managed to get in contact with South Korean agents who smuggled him into their embassy and give him a diplomatic passport, but his friend was unfortunately caught and committed suicide rather than being sent back.

The book is a compelling read, and its description of North Korea from the inside is fascinating, although by now rather dated. There is however one passage which is very relevant to the contemporary crisis in the Korean peninsula. Jiang Jin-sung recounts a private conversation he once had in Pyongyang with an ex-classmate from Kim-Il Sung University, a government cadre involved in establishing connections with ethnic Koreans in China. Apparently there was then a rule in North Korea that private conversations between cadres could not be used as a basis for prosecution unless there was independent evidence of them having taken place. This rule was made to prevent personal vendettas from spiralling out of control, and it allowed members of the elite to establish friendship and trust by sharing the dangerous truths behind the official narrative.

Jang's ex-classmate spilled his guts out regarding the true state of China-North Korea relations at the time. He told Jang about the background to Kim Jong Il's visit to China in 2001. In 2000 Kim Jong Il apparently came across an internal document of the Chinese government regarding the pact made between China and the DPRK after the Korean War. The document contained statements by some Chinese policy-makers suggesting that China should call off the mutual aid pact, or even ask North Korea for reparations for China's support during the war. Kim Jong Il was furious and went straight to the Chinese embassy to reprimand the ambassador, without any prior warning. North Korea's state news agency also announced the visit to the Chinese embassy without first telling the Chinese. The whole thing was seen as a diplomatic snub to China.

In response, China withdrew its ambassador and sent in a new one who was far less friendly to the North Koreans. A couple of months later, dozens of North Korean agents were arrested in North-East China for trying to groom local cadres within the government and police. Then for a while China even put a stop to aid to North Korea. After making their point, the Chinese authorities invited Kim Jong Il to visit China in January 2001, and he had no choice but to make the trip. The Korean delegation was even made to wait outside Beijing for days before being received. Then Kim was forced to go down to Shanghai and tour the skyscrapers of the Pudong special economic zone, and declare his praise for China's economic reform. This was reported in the international media as a sign that North Korea's leader wanted to emulate China's economic reforms. The reality is that he was forced to go to China as a kind of penance for daring to challenge his Chinese backers.

What is telling are the phrases that Jang's ex-classmate uses when talking about North Korea's relationship with China: "(...) I bet that's the first and last time our general tries to play with China the kind of games he plays with the US. We all know that if they squeeze us, we're dead.". And then later: "If they decide that our regime must go, it will go".

If this was true back in 2004, it is probably even truer now that cross-border trade between North Korea and China is much more large-scale. As others have recently pointed out, it is naive to think that the Chinese government couldn't bring North Korea to its knees if it wanted to. But it is also clear that they do not have any intention of pushing North Korea to the point where its regime may collapse. China's decision-makers may genuinely be frustrated at Kim Jong Un for his recklessness and threats (or they may be secretly pleased), but they appear to think that a reunification of the Korean peninsula would bring US troops all the way to their border. Although the reality is that in the long run the American army would have to pull out of a reunified Korea, the Chinese government probably doesn't believe this or see things that way. While it may not be a puppet, North Korea is essentially a buffer state, and for this reason it continues to exist.

Jang Jin Sung 

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