North Korea: Embracing the dragon
By Aidan Foster-Carter
Over a month ago, in an article in these columns, I suggested a number of
reasons why North Korea may well become a quasi-satellite of China. 
Well, it's happening even faster than I expected. In all the excitement about
Kim Jong-eun's coming-out for a second time, at the 65th birthday of the ruling
Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) on October 10, we risk missing another key aspect
of that big Pyongyang parade.
The "reptile press" - one of my favorite North Korean phrases; yup, I'm a
lizard and proud - all oohed and aahed at their first glimpse of the "young
general". Most paid less attention to a middle-aged chap also standing on the
podium, not far from the
clearly ailing Kim Jong-il. The one without a badge - meaning he isn't North
Korean. A rare privilege for a foreigner.
How now, Zhou
Meet Zhou Yongkang. Hardly a household name, yet ranked ninth in China's
politburo. A former minister of public security (2002-2007), he still has
responsibilities in that key area.
Now Zhou has a new role too: he is China's point man on North Korea. This seems
to have been his first trip there, but it won't be his last. Barely a week
later, back in Beijing, he was on the job again, this time hosting a large
visiting North Korean delegation (of which more below).
Zhou has been parachuted in above Wang Jiarui, the head of the Chinese
Communist Party's international liaison department, who in recent years had
been China's most frequent flyer to Pyongyang. Wang is still on the case: he
was part of the October 10 delegation too, but clearly ranked below Zhou.
This seems less a demotion for Wang than a broadening of Beijing's agenda.
Wang's main task, a thankless one, was and is to try to chivvy the Kims into
line on the nuclear issue. That remains a key goal, but now in a wider context.
China wants to deepen its overall relations with North Korea. To that end,
bringing in a new more senior figure to take charge flatters the Kims, while
Zhou's background in public security is doubtless meant to reassure them.
China means business
Who else did Zhou bring along? Not the usual cross-section of the great and the
good, but the neighbors: meaning senior figures from the three Chinese
provinces - Jilin, Liaoning and Heilongjiang - which border or are close to
North Korea. This trio had a special dinner with a quartet who are their North
Korean equivalents: the party secretaries - provincial governors in all but
name - from North Pyongan, Jagang, Ryanggang and North Hamgyong, the four
provinces which adjoin China across the Yalu (Amnok in Korean) and Tumen
Not only dinner, but a deal. On the eve of Pyongyang's parade, the two sides
signed a trade agreement. No details were given, but again each side's border
bigwigs were in evidence.
Nor did it end there. A week later, one of North Korea's rising stars led a big
delegation to China, with provinces again prominent. Aged only 53, much younger
than most of North Korea's gerontocratic elite, Mun Kyong-dok is a new
alternate politburo member. He also holds the key job of party secretary for
Pyongyang. As such, on September 30 he gave a keynote speech in front of
150,000 people, congratulating Kim Jong-il on his re-election as leader.
October 16 saw Mun on the road, shepherding all 11 of North Korea's provincial
or big city party secretaries to - where else? - Beijing. Welcoming them, Zhou
Yongkang - who else? - noted that this was "the first time that the secretaries
from all the WPK provincial and municipal committees have visited China",
adding, "I wish that you will expand exchange with various Chinese regions
you're visiting and achieve success from your tours." Mun replied that "We will
study and learn the successful experiences from China."
Maybe this time?
We've heard that before, even from Kim Jong-il - who forgets all about it as
soon as he gets back home. But as Sally Bowles sings in Cabaret: "Maybe
this time." Sending such a large team - a full house, indeed - on the road in
this way, including several younger and newly appointed provincial party
bosses, looks like a real effort to take things forward. China won't be
impressed if its mendicant neighbor merely rattles the begging bowl again.
Mun's team went on to - where else? - the northeast, visiting factories in
Heilongjiang and Jilin. These provinces have in the past had bones to pick with
their unneighborly neighbor, which too often fails to pay for coal or other
goods - and sometimes doesn't even return the railway wagons used to deliver
them. That sort of tiresome trickery will have to stop. Time will tell whether
North Korea has really turned over a new leaf in its business dealings.
On another front, by a convenient coincidence October 19 was the 60th
anniversary of China's entry into the Korean War. The massed ranks of Chinese
People's Volunteers (CPV) - old British army joke: "I want three volunteers:
You, you and you!" - turned the tide, saved Kim Il-sung's bacon and stopped
General Douglas MacArthur wiping the Democratic People's Republic of Korea
(DPRK) off the map.
Cue yet more love-ins. The state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) ran a
stirring headline: "Friendship Forged in Blood in Anti-US War." Special events
included a photo exhibition, a Chinese film week and performances by a visiting
art troupe from the People's Liberation Army (PLA). A delegation from the
Korean People's Army visited China, led by vice minister of the People's Armed
Forces Pyon Il-son: a hitherto obscure general, but evidently another name to
China reciprocated by sending a better-known bigwig. (Speaking of which, he
wears one - or so says Wigipedia.) Unlike Zhou Yongkang, who is new to this
patch, General Guo Boxiong - vice chairman of China's Central Military
Commission - has had North Korean links for at least a decade; he visited in
2001 with then-president Jiang Zemin.
Usually the CPV anniversary is marked by a low-key wreath-laying and a few
press articles. But 60 is a big one, and this time Pyongyang pulled out all the
stops. There was a mass rally - "held with splendor", gushed KCNA - with Kim
Jong-il and Kim Jong-eun in attendance and much stirring rhetoric. The dear
leader also hosted a dinner, again with his son present.
Even Arirang has got in on the act. North Korea's striking yet introverted mass
games have finally admitted (pace juche) that the Kims didn't go it
alone; they got by with a little help from their friends. KCNA on October 22
described a newly added scene, "Friendship Arirang". This highlights the role
of the CPV, portrayed with "drums of different sizes, ribbons, red flags and
other hand props ... several-dozen-meter-long dragons, pandas and lions."
We helped you first
One wonders what Chinese visitors who are the mainstay of North Korea's thin
tourist trade make of such cliches - or the fact that, the way Pyongyang tells
it, that is only half the story. For Arirang also, and first, depicts "the
Korean People's Revolutionary Army and Chinese armed units fighting together
against the Japanese imperialists". The implication is that this was somehow
reciprocal: Korea helped China out, and then China repaid the compliment. Note
also the disrespect: Korea had an army, China merely "armed units". What, no
Pull the other one, comrades. True, a small but gallant band of Korean
communists under Mu Chong, a veteran of the Long March, were with Mao Zedong in
Yanan. Separately, the young Kim Il-sung was one of a few guerillas - under
Chinese command - who skirmished with the Japanese in Manchuria before being
chased across the border into the Soviet Union. Kim came back in Soviet uniform
and set about purging rivals - including Mu Chong, who had to flee to China.
All quite a can of worms, which it seems unwise of North Korea to risk opening.
CPV casualty figures tell their own story. This year Beijing quantified these.
A staggering three million Chinese troops fought in what China still calls the
"War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea". Over 180,000 never came back. PLA
statistics show 114,084 killed in action or accidents, with another 25,621
missing. A further 70,000 died from wounds, illness or other causes. There are
183,108 registered war martyrs. Others put China's losses as even higher. With
all respect to Mu Chong, a few Koreans' sacrifices for China don't begin to
Nuclear hopes and fears
China's many and mixed motives vis-a-vis North Korea now include never to get
dragged into war like that again. To that end, Beijing still professes faith in
the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program which it hosts, even
though these achieved little tangible - despite many hopes, and much talking-up
- over five long years. (They began in 2003 and have been stalled since 2008.)
Here too there is fresh activity. Hardly had the cheers echoing in Kim Il-sung
Square died away than the North's long-time nuclear negotiator Kim Kye-gwan,
newly promoted to first vice minister, led a delegation to Beijing on October
12. There followed four days of what KCNA called "an exhaustive and candid
discussion on DPRK-China relations, resumption of the six-party talks and the
regional situation, etc." It added: "The DPRK is ready for the resumption of
the above-said talks but decided not to go hasty [sic] but to make ceaseless
patient efforts now that the US and some other participating countries are not
True. South Korea and Japan, like the United States, see no point in dusting
off the six-party circus without clear signals from Pyongyang on two fronts: a
serious will to give up nuclear weapons, as against playing games; and an
admission that it sank the South Korean corvette Cheonan in March.
That is a hard gap for Beijing to bridge - especially if there is any basis to
recent rumors that North Korea, so far from disarming, may be planning a third
nuclear test. Somehow I doubt this. China's fresh embrace of its tiresome
neighbor is not unconditional. I would expect its price for propping up the
Kims to be twofold: Market reforms - and no more nuclear tests.
Another bang would sorely tax China's patience with this tiresome thorn in its
northeastern flesh. Beijing is still sheltering number one son Kim Jong-nam,
who on October 12 rained (or an earthier verb springs to mind) on little
brother's parade by declaring that he personally was against a third-generation
succession. Might anyone try to change his mind? Jong-nam may look ghastly, but
he is pro-reform. If Jong-eun proves a pest or a dud, China has alternatives.
Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and
modern Korea at Leeds University, and a freelance consultant, writer and
broadcaster on Korean affairs. A regular visitor to the peninsula, he has
followed North Korea for over 40 years.