CHINA BRIEFING
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Execution of Kim's uncle a signal for Beijing to get tough with North Korea

Shocking North Korea purge reveals China holds little influence over key regional ally's unpredictable leader

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 4:24am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 5:45am

The swift and unusually public manner in which Kim Jong-un's uncle was deposed and executed last week shocked a world that long ago thought it had seen it all from the unpredictable and brutal North Korean regime.

But the demise of Jang Song-thaek - the country's second most powerful official and a mentor to Kim - in just four days would not surprise those familiar with the turbulent history of the Chinese Communist Party and its feudal predecessors.

Moreover, Jang's execution has provided more evidence about Beijing's increasingly complex relationship with Pyongyang, highlighting its limited influence over the dynastic regime, even though the Kim family largely relies on Beijing's support to survive.

According to a statement released by the North Korean government, Jang plotted to overthrow the Kim dynasty and betrayed the trust of the leader, his father and his grandfather.

Calling him a sinner and "worse than a dog", the statement even accused Jang of displaying his disloyalty by showing little enthusiasm while clapping his hands after a speech by Kim.

The choice of the words will have reminded mainlanders of similar denouncements of past Chinese leaders including Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao, who were each once the country's second most powerful officials before being purged by Mao Zedong.

Analysts were divided over whether Jang's purging showed that Kim had fully consolidated power two years after his father's death or that his grip has slipped amid the behind-the-scenes power struggle.

But they tended to agree that something big must have motivated Kim to go after a family member, particularly someone like Jang, who was well liked by his father and grandfather.

For Chinese well versed in their country's own feudal dynasties - some of which ruled the whole Korean peninsula as a satellite state for centuries - the intrigue is all too familiar.

A new emperor, seeking to establish his absolute authority, would often strike at and eliminate those mandarins and close family members who were most trusted by his predecessor. Often, those who helped the new emperor ascend to the throne suffered the worst consequences.

In the case of Kim, who is believed to be about 30, at least four of the seven leaders who marched with him with his father's hearse, including Jang, have now reportedly been sidelined or purged.

Beijing's official reaction has been understandably muted, calling the purge an internal matter for Pyongyang. It did pointedly add that it hoped that cross-border trade would continue as normal.

But the removal of Jang - long considered a leading advocate for Chinese-style economic reforms and a key official overseeing the regime's tentative steps to open up its closed economy - is expected to have profound implications for Beijing.

Much of North Korea's economic plans centred on special economic zones aimed at drawing overseas - mostly Chinese - investment. Indeed, some of the key crimes levelled against Jang related to sales of gold and other minerals to China and plans to sell 50-year land-use rights in one special economic zone to Chinese investors.

Jang's execution will likely spur Chinese leaders to further review their ties with the Kim regime, even if some in Beijing appreciate Kim's power play as a short-term stabilising measure.

An implosion of North Korea would present an even bigger threat to China's national security and its strategic interests than the unpredictable role North Korea has played as a buffer against United States military influence in East Asia.

This is particularly true as Beijing and Washington try to forge a "new type of great power relationship" and step up co-operation on major international issues, including the Korea dispute, despite the frequent fiction between the two sides.

At a time when President Xi Jinping is taking a more assertive stance on international issues pertaining to national security, Beijing should get tougher with North Korea, with the support of US and other members of international community.

xiangwei.wang@scmp.com