If Xi Jinping indeed arrives in Pyongyang next month for his long-awaited first state visit to the DPRK, readers are likely to see torrents of speculation about Xi’s personal relationship with Kim Jong Un. Does the Chinese leader see Kim as a true comrade, an equal of sorts in the arena of Party-Party relations, or as a wayward tutee who needs to be lectured?
A biographically-oriented approach might suggest that Xi looks down on Kim Jong Un for Kim’s having been granted supreme leadership in North Korea without having to struggle with rural poverty and county-level administration, or work his way up the Party ladder in the way that Xi did.
Such a view assumes a completely blank slate, and no agency on the part of Xi, when it comes to the Kim Jong Un succession. When Xi Jinping first visited North Korea in June 2008, just over ten years ago, he himself had just been elected Vice-President and, in effect, was already functioning as Hu Jintao’s probable successor. The high point of his visit was a talk with Kim Jong Il, then about 66 and apparently in good health.
The public records of those talks, unsurprisingly, contain no discussion whatsoever about plans for a North Korean successor, and certainly no reference to Kim Jong Un.
Instead, when meeting Xi, Kim Jong Il was flanked by his father’s old aid and China hand, Kim Song Nam — a man who survived the purges of the winter of 2013-14 and has since followed Kim Jong Un to the northern border and assisted in contacts with the Communist Party of China (CPC).
In his 2008 visit to Pyongyang, Xi also had contact with Yang Hyong Sop, a senior North Korean comrade who has been playing an important role in bilateral ties again of late, praising the security alliance with Beijing.
Two months after Xi Jinping left Pyongyang, Kim Jong Il had a stroke, opening the way to possible change at the top of the Workers’ Party of Korea. Xi Jinping had not been introduced to Kim Jong Un because the North Koreans were not planning a succession.
It took another two years after Kim Jong Il’s stroke, dozens of on-site inspections of the senior Kim looking like a palliative care patient, and another year of ambiguity about basic details of Kim Jong Un’s existence (Chinese state media was not even provided with the hanja for Kim’s name) before the North Korean successor was introduced with the blessing of the CCP Politburo.
Zhou Yongkang’s October 2010 visit to Pyongyang and public endorsement of Kim Jong Un as successor has since attracted more rumors and speculation than can be properly corralled here.
Even before Zhou was purged from the top of the CCP, damaging diplomatic comments about the Sino-North Korean relationship were circulating, and we are still occasionally regaled with exciting but poorly-sourced assertions about surreptitiously taped conversations and the Jang Song Taek purge. (Perhaps where there is smoke, there is fire, but it is also possible that no one outside of the respective Politburos involved knows what they are talking about.)
The reader at this point may be asking what Zhou Yongkang’s visit to Pyongyang in October 2010 has to do with Xi Jinping’s outlook on Kim Jong Un today. The point is that Zhou’s visit and the CCP support of the Kim Jong Un succession as a whole was discussed by the Politburo in Beijing and necessarily supported by Xi Jinping.
Xi has today reached the apex of power in the Chinese Communist Party, and of course it merits remembering that he has put in the time to build his power base and Party credentials in a way that Kim Jong Un never did.
But it is equally relevant that Xi has been an important part of several CCP internal discussions that have supported Kim Jong-un’s succession, and that structurally the Chinese Communist Party wants and needs Kim to survive politically. And, at the end of the day, these two men have so much in common as leaders that even a palpable personal disdain could not prevent them from finding some points of common commissertation at their next meeting.
Comrades and Party Business
When looking at Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un side by side, we tend to factor in the power imbalance between China and North Korea – and the age difference. After all, Xi is the leader of a country with huge economy, a highly developed nuclear program, which has a seat on the UN Security Council and is responsible for upwards of 80% of North Korea’s foreign trade.
So when looking at the two authoritarian leaders together, as they might be in early September in Pyongyang, we tend to see Xi very much as the elder teacher, and Kim Jong Un as the one who needs to be nervous about regime collapse or internal strife.
But consider the fact that Kim Jong Un and Xi have quite a bit to talk about as equals. What is on the agenda, after all?
Xi merits another full update on what the Americans are doing and how to best handle the Trump administration, a briefing on Kim’s manuevers with South Korea, some thanks for economic aid in the form of oil or food (not to be publicized, surely), a checking in on the overseas Chinese in North Korea, and pledges for further business ties and cultural delegations. (Peng Liyuan visiting with Xi as First Lady would of course be a good sign with regard to musical ties in particular).
Xi might further discuss military-military relations beyond the small but important links recently made by China’s new defense attaché in Pyongyang, coordination on Japan, (a common rival whose bonds as an opponent have helped to bridge Chinese and North Korean differences for decades) and more detail from the North Korean leader on what the ‘new strategic line’ actually involves.
But also on the agenda will be inner-Party business, and the two may wish to pick one another’s brains on how best to ensure compliance with central commands at the local level.
Kim’s complaints about county level differentiation have had some foreign supporters of economic reform salivating, but without much substantive follow up.
No large-scale purges have occurred of late in North Korea, but Xi Jinping has been much more preoccupied with internal Party purges and Party discipline. This includes rooting out the ongoing influence in the Party of now-purged Bo Xilai and Sun Zhengcai (both men with governor experience in the northeast, and thus contacts with DPRK in the late 2000s).
Kim’s complaints about his Cabinet last month seem to function like Trump’s tweets about Jeff Sessions – no one is going to be removed, but these are more like frustrated warnings for men like Park Pong Ju.
Peter Ward has told this author that “the cabinet is a large institution and it has become far more prominent in economic life since the rise of Kim Jong Un,” and cautioned against reading Kim’s complaints too much within the frame of potential personnel changes at the top.
Kim in any event has to take care, as he might learn from discussions with Xi: too much anti-corruption efforts and demoralised ranks can result.
The CCP has suffered from increase of ‘irregular deaths’ (i.e., suicides) in some localities and many Party members are left wondering where the boundary exists between corruption and the day-to-day routines of Party work.
In a sense, the relationships between North Koreans and Chinese in the shared border region are the everyday ligaments of the bilateral relationship.
But it is the leadership that will regulate the pace and flow to a degree, and we need to be mindful of what they wish to accomplish – and the interests they may share – in spite of different backgrounds and pathways to power.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA