As North Koreans mourn the loss of Kim Jong Il, Chinese officials joined in.
One Chinese newspaper on Tuesday ran the banner headline “Goodbye, Old Friend,” while others talked about the intimate relationship the two countries enjoy. Chinese state-run television ran plenty of footage of sobbing North Koreans. It was a little much for one observe on a Chinese newspaper website.
“Paying respects to a leader doesn’t have to go so far. After all, everyone will die one day,” the poster wrote.
Among China’s leaders, somber condolences were the order of the day. President Hu Jintao visited the North Korean embassy in Beijing, as did his likely successor, current Vice President Xi Jinping. They joined other officials and visitors carrying bouquets of white flowers. Foreign journalists, looking for visas to cover Kim Jong-Il’s funeral, were told to come back next year.
North Korea has turned inward for 13 days of mourning, limiting the flow of traffic across its border crossing with China at Dandong. In a statement from China's Foreign Ministry, spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said China’s top leaders were shocked to learn that Kim Jong Il had died.
“We hereby express our deep condolences on his demise and send sincere regards to the (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) people,” the statement said. “Comrade Kim Jong-il was a great leader of the DPRK people, and an intimate friend of the Chinese people, and he had made important contributions to developing the DPRK’s socialist cause and promoting good-neighborly and cooperative relations between China and the DPRK.”
Kim didn’t always cooperate as China might have liked. He resisted calls to enact economic reforms. He made sure years of nuclear disarmament talks China hosted went nowhere and much to China’s dismay, he launched missiles or carried out nuclear tests whenever he wanted to get international attention.
North Korea gets most of its food and fuel from China, and that’s become more important this year, with about six million North Koreans – a quarter of the population — in need of food aid, after a bad harvest and new UN sanctions. North Korea also supports a million-man army, which needs its food and fuel, too.
“I think it’s clear that the sanctions had been biting, that they’d taken a toll, that the North has definite cash-flow problems,” said Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, the International Crisis Group’s Northeast Asia project manager. “And I think North Korea is fundamentally uncomfortable with having to rely on China. Ideally, they’d like to be able to balance out that dependency with the Russians, with the Americans, with any other European country, some of which are already quite engaged with North Korea.”
It may be in hopes of receiving food aid that North Korea announced on Saturday – about the same time Kim Jong Il is said to have died – that it would suspend its uranium enriched nuclear weapons program, a central U.S. demand for the resumption of disarmament talks.
Whether such talks lead anywhere is another question. Brian Myer, an international relations professor at Dongseo University in Seoul, told the BBC he doesn’t expect new leader Kim Jong Un to veer significantly from his father’s path when it comes to North Korea’s nuclear program.
“I think he’ll want to make progress, not in the sense we would use, but for him, I think progress means further weaponizing the nuclear potential he has,” Meyer said. “North Korea really has no reason to disarm or to make peace with the United States, because if it were to do so, it would really lose all reason to exist outside South Korea as a separate state.”
Kim Jong Il, and his father Kim Il Sung before him, kept power by isolating the North Korean population, and feeding it stories both of North Korea’s superiority to all other places, and of the imminent threat of attack from external enemies — the United States, especially. That’s justified the expense of keeping a huge army, and maintaining a “military first” policy. But with more North Koreans traveling to China and coming back with stories and DVDs from the outside, a growing number of North Koreans are getting an honest look at the outside — and how much they’re suffering by comparison.
Still, power remains in the hands of the elites, with the Kim family at the core. And North Korea’s nuclear program provides insurance that North Korea won’t become the next Libya or Iraq. It’s also a bargaining chip, which has proven lucrative over time, especially to North Korea’s ruling group. The urge for them to protect their privileges – while much of the population suffers – may help the succession go smoothly, in the short term. Kleine-Ahlbrandt said the concern is what might happen later.
“Our greatest worry would be that if Kim Jong Un or his closest supporters feel insecure or weak enough, if for example, there were splits in the leadership, they might feel they have to demonstrate their military prowess, and we might go back to a phase of seeing more provocation,” Kleine-Ahlbrandt said.
For now, the focus is on presenting a united front, mourning the dead, marking the passing of one era and the beginning of another. Whether the young third-generation heir to a socialist dynasty can do any better for his country than his father did, China’s leaders stand ready to support him. On Tuesday, they invited Kim Jung-Un to visit.