By Sarah K. Yun
In light of the uncertainties following the death of Kim Jong-il, China has stepped to the forefront as the first foreign player to express lavish condolences to the North Korean government. Understanding China’s actions and words will be an important piece in the North Korea puzzle as events unfold on the peninsula. Given that, it is particularly interesting to compare and contrast the different steps that China took after Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994 and Kim Jung-il’s death this week.
The context of 1994 and 2011 are quite different. At the time of Kim Il-sung’s death, China had a much less assertive and developed foreign policy. Moreover, it had been just a few years after the end of the Cold War, which meant that China was more cautious about maintaining a balanced relationship with its neighbors. Also, it was only two years after the normalization of relations with South Korea.
In their effort to integrate into the international system and markets, China attempted to uphold a balance between North and South Korea. North Korea, on the other hand, believed that China often compromised the socialist cause, evidenced by their economic reforms. As of June 1995, high level meetings took place between China and South Korea, while little activity occurred with the North, and Kim Jong-il had not been invited to China at this juncture. There were indications that China was tilting towards South Korea while trying to separate its economic and political policies.
Today, China is the second largest economy in the world and an active participant and leader of many key global issues such as the Six-Party Talks, climate change, nuclear nonproliferation, and more. China has gained much confidence from its growing influence and leverage in the world, including the Korean peninsula. Since the Cheonan and Yeongpyeong tragedies in 2010, China has revealed unprecedented efforts to prop up the Kim regime through aid, trade, and political support.
Kim Jong-il’s death takes place in this context. Even though China operates in a different context and reputation in the world, signs imply that it will continue on its expected path in support of the North Korean regime in order to avoid instability. Moreover, China wants to be the best positioned and most informed about the changes in North Korea, which explains the quick acknowledgement of Kim Jong-un by the Chinese government. Interestingly, the official statements by the Chinese government after the death of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are quite similar:
“It is our strongest belief that the Korean people will surely carry out (Kim Il-sung’s) behest, unite closely around the Workers’ Party of Korea led by comrade Kim Jong-il, and continue their efforts in building their country well and achieving lasting peace for the Korean peninsula.” (Official Statement after Kim Il-sung’s Death, July 9, 1994)
“We are convinced that the Korean people will overcome sorrow and display strength, achieve steady and fresh successes in the overall work for socialist construction and make a fresh contribution to realizing lasting peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, united single-mindedly under the leadership of Kim Jong-un and the Workers’ Party of Korea.” (Statement by Chinese Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi, December 19, 2011)
“We believe the Korean people will surely overcome sorrow and display strength and courage and steadily advance the DPRK’s cause of socialism by dint of single-minded unity. Both China and the DPRK will as ever make joint efforts to make a positive contribution to steadily developing the traditional friendship between the two parties, two countries and two peoples and defending peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula and the region.” (Statement by the Spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, December 19, 2011)
The content and wording are almost identical. The timing of the statements (one day after the death announcement) is similar as well. What is different, however, is the usage of the word “fresh” in the 2011 statement, underlining the new generation of North Korean leaders with whom China may not have close ties. Moreover, the phrase “DPRK’s cause of socialism” was used for the first time, indicating China’s recognition of North Korea’s uniqueness. The implication, however, is that socialism and history bind the two countries together but there now lies a difference between Chinese and North Korean ways of socialism.
Another interesting note is the slight differences in the order of condolence messages. On December 19, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi conveyed a telegram of condolences on behalf of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, National People’s Congress Standing Committee, State Council, Central Military Commission, addressed to the Korean Workers Party Central Committee, Korean Workers Party Central Military Commission, National Defense Commission, Standing Committee of the Supreme People Assembly, and the Cabinet. In 1994, on the other hand, the CCP sent a person to the North Korean embassy, this time President Hu Jintao visited North Korea’s embassy in Beijing to express condolences. Moreover, additional condolence messages to Kim Il-sung came from Deng Xiaoping, President Jiang Zemin, Prime Minister Li Peng, and parliament chief Qiao Shi. It will be interesting to note if any previous and current Chinese leaders make separate statements of condolence in the near future. This also conveys the power shift within the Chinese government.
It is also important to note that Foreign Minister Yang exchanged phone calls on December 20 with Secretary Clinton and ROK Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan. This is positive news given that China often plays its cards close to the chest.
By looking at the similarities and differences between Chinese reactions to the death of two North Korean leaders, one can gain insight on China’s future posture towards North Korea. China will continue to ensure stability to North Korea as its foremost priority, while trying to create a larger imprint on the Korean peninsula. On the other hand, perhaps China is recognizing the potential for changes, opportunities, and openings from a North Korea under the leadership of Kim Jong-un and changing leadership of China.
Sarah K. Yun is the Director of Public Affairs and Regional Issues for the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are her own.
Photo by Edourdoo