The assassination of Kim Jong Nam on February 13 came after months of political shifts throughout Northeast Asia and continued North Korean recalcitrance. China’s central government has found itself in a difficult position, and this has affected national discourse on the topic.
The assassination sidelined bilateral cooperation and perplexed Chinese observers, but responses from Chinese social media, academic and professional observers, as well as diplomatic officials, suggests the government is undertaking a balancing act to reign in North Korea while ensuring that rhetoric between Beijing and Pyongyang does not spiral out of control.
NETIZENS BLAME NORTH KOREA
Reports of the assassination spread like wildfire on Chinese social media. Under articles about the assassination which did not speculate on the culprit, Weibo users were quick to assert that it was Kim Jong Un and that the action was yet another slight against China. Criticisms centered on Kim’s ruthlessness and propensity to target members of his own family using political tactics normally associated with feudal regimes.
Chinese netizens have long voiced their displeasure with North Korea and its leader. However, their reactions to the assassination did not reflect the fear and anger which characterized the outcry after North Korean nuclear tests in 2016. Instead, a sense of incredulity pervaded online communities which highlighted the distance they perceived between the allies once close “as lips and teeth.”
The extent of the outcry among Chinese social media users may be unknown, as posts and comments about the assassination appeared censored, as is often the case for sensitive topics related to North Korea.
The simplicity and uniformity of the consensus reached by formal Chinese observers suggests government influence or censorship is at play
CONSENSUS FORMS AMONG FORMAL OBSERVERS
Scholars and observers offered different views in the aftermath of the assassination, avoiding discussion of Sino-North Korea relations or harsh criticism of Kim Jong Un. He Liang Liang, a Phoenix TV commentator, suggested that North Korea was responsible and examined its history of state terrorism.
Others were unwilling to blame North Korea directly for the assassination or inflame dialogue by leaping to conclusions. Prominent commentator Zhang Huai Zui and others suggested that South Korea or the U.S. could be involved, linking their “eagerness” to point fingers at North Korea to a possible political motive. South Korea’s intent to deploy THAAD in conjunction with the U.S. has angered many Chinese observers.
Zhang Lian Gui of China’s Central Party School, one of the country’s foremost North Korea scholars, chided observers for “ignoring” North Korea’s missile tests as a result of the assassination in an article published February 21.
The Chinese foreign and defense ministries have reiterated China’s interests on the Korean Peninsula
On February 26, a televised panel featuring several North Korea experts from China and South Korea discussed the assassination.
The group avoided mention of North Korea’s culpability and reached a consensus: the development had a limited effect on Sino-DPRK relations and Kim Jong Nam was not a major political asset to China. This view is similar to the official response of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the assassination.
While criticism of North Korea is usually tempered in prominent editorials, the simplicity and uniformity of the consensus reached by formal Chinese observers suggests government influence or censorship is at play. Even some of China’s best-known North Korea observers, including Li Dun Qiu of Zhejiang University and Qiu Lin, a prominent blogger, have remained silent on the topic.
OFFICIAL RESPONSE DOWNPLAYS SIGNIFICANCE
Chinese officials have remained measured in their response to the assassination, offering no suggestions that it was carried out at North Korea’s behest.
In particular, officials have de-emphasized the assassination’s impact on Sino-DPRK relations. When asked about the issue on February 16, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang replied that “China and North Korea are friends and neighbors, with a tradition of friendly exchanges.”
Following longstanding practice, the Chinese foreign and defense ministries have reiterated China’s interests on the Korean Peninsula, dissuaded other parties from further destabilizing the situation, and advocated for a negotiated solution to the North Korean nuclear issue.
As details emerge strengthening the apparent link between North Korea and the death of Kim Jong Nam, the implications remain unclear for China. Officials remain focused on the country’s missile tests and other provocations.
Cognizant of the fact that the assassination provides further fuel for a popular outcry against North Korea, the Chinese government is showing restraint in its official statements.
In addition, it appears to have influenced discourse on the topic among non-government observers. China’s standard practice is to maintain stability where possible in its relationship with North Korea, whatever its own misgivings about the country may be, and this extends to popular dialogue within the country.
Though Chinese officials may persist in downplaying the impact of the assassination of Kim Jong Nam on bilateral relations, they are almost certainly hiding disappointment.
The death of Kim Jong Nam further demonstrates that Kim Jong Un continues to place a higher priority on settling political scores than China’s objectives of stability, de-nuclearization or economic reform.
Featured image: Kim Chol’s Facebook
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