Sunday, May 16, 2010

An Early Return

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il apparently returned home empty-handed after his recent, high-profile trip to China.

According to South Korea's JoongAn Ilbo, Kim cut short his visit after PRC officials denied his request for "extraordinary" economic assistance.

China told North Korean leader Kim Jong-il during his recent visit that it will respect international sanctions imposed on Pyongyang and refused to provide extraordinary economic assistance, an informed source here told the paper.

According to the source, the Chinese government’s position prompted Kim to cut short his stay in China. “At the luncheon between Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Kim on May 6, the Chinese government informed the North that China will not provide aid outside the framework of the United Nations Security Council sanctions against Pyongyang,” the source said.

“After Beijing’s position was explained, Kim shortened his schedule in China.”

While Kim's visit to China was scheduled to last until 7 May, he rushed home a day early, after PRC officials rejected his request for additional economic help.

As with previous trips to the PRC, Kim met with PRC officials amid a near-total news blackout. Chinese government spokesmen refused to confirm the North Korean leader was in their country, although footage of Kim's visit appeared on Japanese and South Korean TV.

Those clips indicate that Kim Jong-il has not fully recovered from a near-fatal stroke in 2008. Snippets that aired in Tokyo and Seoul showed a thinner and balding Kim--possible side effects of dialysis treatment. Kim also appeared to drag his left foot as he walked and his left arm hung almost motionless.

Despite his frail condition, western analysts viewed Kim's China trip as critical for the future of his regime. UN sanctions have further squeezed the DPRK's virtually bankrupt economy, and Pyongyang needs additional Chinese aid to remain afloat, allowing Kim to fund military projects and purchase consumer goods for key supporters. Under current UN sanctions, foreign donors can only provide humanitarian aid.

The trip was also viewed as an introduction (of sorts) for Kim's youngest son--and designated successor--Kim Jong un. With his health declining, Kim Jong-il clearly wants to cement the succession process, and hoped the Chinese would offer tacit support for his plan. But he was rebuffed on both counts, prompting Kim to hop on his armored train and head for home.

Pyongyang has long boasted of its "special relationship" with Beijing, and China remains its most important ally. But from the PRC's perspective, those ties are producing diminishing returns. While North Korea creates problems for China's economic rivals in Seoul and Tokyo (forcing them--along with the U.S.--to spend billions countering the DPRK military threat), Pyongyang has also become a headache for its patrons in Beijing.

Consider the run-up to Kim Jong-il's most recent trip. It came barely a month after a ROK naval vessel blew up and sank in contested waters near the North Korean coast. While the DPRK has denied involvement, South Korean and U.S. investigators believe the ship was sunk by a torpedo, launched from a North Korean sub. While Kim's visit had been in the works for months, the Chinese were clearly miffed at hosting him in the wake of that torpedo attack.

But Beijing isn't quite ready to give up on North Korea. If China was so inclined, it could pull the plug on all aid to the DPRK, and push the hermit kingdom to the brink of collapse. But that would create even more unrest on the Korean peninsula, so the PRC voiced its displeasure by denying Kim more substantial aid, while still providing humanitarian assistance. Other reports suggest Beijing okayed a new line of credit for Pyongyang last fall, but there is no evidence of that assistance has been delivered.

Unfortunately, the fallout from Kim Jong-il's failed visit will be felt far beyond North Korea. When the North Korean leader doesn't get his way, he usually responds by ramping up tensions on the peninsula, followed by an offer to de-escalate and return to the long-stalled, Six Party nuclear talks. ROK warships fired on intruding DPRK vessels a few days ago, and (with the crab fishing season underway), another major naval clash is within the realm of possibilities. So are additional missile launches and a third nuclear test.

Meanwhile, their are renewed concerns about a potential collapse of Kim's regime. Writing in The Diplomat last week, Professor Minxin Pei of Claremont McKenna College warned that North Korea's neighbors (and the U.S.) must be prepared for a rapid collapse of the DPRK. He believes the country's economic death spiral, coupled with the "inexperience of the putative successor" and the "unknown reliability of security forces in the event of Kim Jong-il's death" have set the stage for Pyongyang's short-term implosion. Pei believes it's time for the regional powers in northeast Asia to develop joint plans for handling that contingency. Good luck with that one.

To be fair, rumors of North Korea's collapse have been making the rounds for years. And somehow, Pyongyang has defied the odds, even if it meant mass starvation among its peasant population and other deprivations. But this time, it may be different. Scattered opposition to Kim's regime has actually emerged in North Korea--something unthinkable just a decade ago. Additionally, Pyongyang's dire economic straits will make it more difficult for Kim Jong un to hold the reins of power--and he will enter the post with far less experience (and support) than his father.

The coming months on the Korean peninsula will prove interesting--and potentially perilous.


Doug said...

Your contribution to keeping us informed is appreciated...keep it up!
This stuff should be making the papers...but it won't...

Robert said...

"The coming months on the Korean peninsula will prove interesting--and potentially perilous."


Robert said...

Proof, once again, that owning or claiming to own nuclear weapons is worth the effort – even for getting away with murder.
Another case of being too-big-to-fail.

moxie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.