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Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin, a former Foreign Service Officer and senior Congressional staff, is a consultant on Asian issues.
Resentment of China, despite claims of a relationship as close as “lips and teeth,” has been an undercurrent in North Korean ruling circles from the earliest days of the DPRK.
The fact that Mao’s People’s Volunteer Army had to ride to the rescue of North Korea’s founding father, Kim Il Sung, after his costly miscalculation that the United States would not intervene in Korea, was a source of deep humiliation. Dependency breeds resentment, as the United States has learned only too well in its position as senior partner in the more than six-decade-old U.S.-ROK alliance.
And then there is the disconcerting fact that while North Korea has made juche, a doctrine predicated on self-reliance, the cornerstone of its ideological justification, reliance on China is a fact of life. The International Policy Digest reported on July 2, 2015 that “North Korea is economically dependent on China for its basic necessities like energy and food which dominate the trade between the two countries. China provided North Korea with 70 percent of its food and about 70-80 percent of the country’s fuel supplies.”
Kim Jong Un’s overtly expressed disdain for his Chinese patrons, therefore, calls to mind the old adage of “don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” But bite that hand he has repeatedly done with gusto.
Both Kim Jong Un’s father and grandfather were famously more adept at handling “panda diplomacy,” arguably North Korea’s most vital foreign relationship, than is the Young General. Kim Il Sung very skillfully took advantage of the Sino-Soviet split during the Cold War to balance relations with and extract concessions from the then two Communist giants.
Kim Jong Un has not limited his disdain for China
Kim Jong Il, who had a reported fear of flying and who rarely traveled far from the Korean peninsula, nonetheless made seven visits to China during his 17-year rule. These included three trips during the last two years of his life, despite failing health.
Kim Jong Il also made it a point to inspect both Shanghai’s stock exchange in 2001 and to copy Deng Xiaoping’s famous 1992 “Southern Tour” of China’s special economic zones in 2006. The Dear Leader was thus able to at least feign an interest in economic reform and opening, themes dear to the hearts of the Chinese leadership. Kim Jong Un, in stark contrast, has made zero trips to visit his key and only ally during his own over-five-year rule.
North Korean documentary on Kim Jong Il’s 2011 trip to China
And Kim Jong Un has not limited his disdain for China and its rulers to a mere attitude of cold estrangement. He has actively flaunted his contempt for Beijing on repeated occasions. For example, when Chinese leader Xi Jinping made a historic visit to Seoul in July 2014 – the first time a Chinese leader had visited South Korea before meeting with the North Korean Kim family, according to Time magazine – Kim Jong Un chose a very symbolic means to express his displeasure.
A 2014 report in South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper noted that “Images of pandas were used during a live-fire artillery drill staged on June 30 at an islet off the country’s east coast.” Kim Jong Un reportedly personally observed the military drill conducted just prior to Xi’s Seoul visit. Images of U.S. soldiers, rather than of Chinese pandas, are the usual subjects of target practice in North Korea.
Earlier in 2014 there was an incident with a China Southern Airlines plane carrying 220 passengers from Tokyo to Shenyang. Time magazine headlined the incident on March 6, 2014, as “The North Koreans Nearly Took Out a Chinese Passenger Plane During a Missile Test.” The article goes on to describe how the airliner “passed through the trajectory of a North Korean missile just seven minutes after it was fired, a South Korean official has revealed.” Not a friendly gesture to an ally.
TESTING BEIJING’S PATIENCE
Then there is the issue of Kim’s repeated conducting of nuclear and missile tests, despite admonitions from Beijing to cease and desist. A particularly galling example was the scheduling of North Korea’s third nuclear test on February 12, 2013 – two days after the start of the Chinese lunar New Year celebrations. The timing seemed deliberately selected in order to send Chinese officials scrambling to head back to their offices in Beijing from their ancestral hometowns. Kim Jong Un repeated this symbolically defiant gesture toward China in 2016. North Korea fired a long-range rocket on February 7, the day before the start of that year’s Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations.
How has Kim Jong Un responded to the latest Chinese pressure? With the bombast and defiance for which he has become famous
Kim has also eliminated family members who are suspected of having close ties to Beijing. Among the crimes cited in rationalizing the December 2013 execution of Kim Jong Un’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, who was widely seen as Beijing’s point man in the Pyongyang leadership, was “selling off the land of the Rason economic and trade zone to a foreign country,” a not very veiled reference to his uncle’s China ties. Then there was the recent assassination of his half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, who was reportedly under the protection of Chinese security forces, at a Malaysian airport. This last action, however, may yet prove to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Officials in Beijing, including Xi Jinping, the most formidable Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping, have been incensed by the consistent disrespect displayed by “their junior,” the 30-something leader in Pyongyang. Chinese netizens have also taken to their blogs not only questioning the value of the relationship with Pyongyang but also referring to Kim Jong Un in such derogatory language as “The Kid” and “Fatty the Third.”
Beijing’s patience with its troublesome North Korean ally may indeed be finally wearing thin. A concrete signal was given days after the assassination of Kim Jong Nam when Beijing announced the suspension of North Korean coal imports. China’s Commerce Ministry announced the suspension of “all imports of coal from North Korea until the end of the year… Coal is North Korea’s largest export item.” China had previously made exceptions, despite UN sanctions, for imports of coal from North Korea intended for “the people’s well-being.”
In another sign that Beijing is getting increasingly fed up, the South China Morning Post reported on February 22nd that “China and the United States have agreed on the need to address the nuclear threat posed by North Korea after a phone call between Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi and the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday.”
Having Beijing assume greater responsibility for resolving the North Korean nuclear issue has been a major theme of new U.S. President Donald Trump.
Beijing’s patience with its troublesome North Korean ally may indeed be finally wearing thin
So how has Kim Jong Un responded to the latest Chinese pressure? With the bombast and defiance for which he has become famous. Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) carried a commentary on February 23rd which attacked a “neighboring country, which often claims itself to be a friendly neighbor” for “unhesitatingly taking inhumane steps such as totally blocking foreign trade related to the improvement of people’s living standard under the plea of the U.N. ‘resolutions on sanctions’ devoid of the legal ground.”
The commentary further accused the unnamed country of “dancing to the tune of the U.S.” The commentary also defiantly vowed to carry forward with nuclear development despite the indicated economic pain with the assertion that “it is utterly childish to think that the DPRK would not manufacture nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic rockets if a few penny of money is cut off.”
So it seems that Kim Jong Un may finally be about to learn that repeatedly biting the hand that feeds you is not a cost-free exercise.
Featured image: Momentchensammler