Kim Jong-un

Arrest of North Korea's No 2 figure is cause for concern in Beijing

The humiliating arrest of Jang Song-thaek, uncle and erstwhile confidant of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, has set alarm bells ringing in Beijing

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 December, 2013, 4:39am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 December, 2013, 11:40am

North Koreans had long known Jang Song-thaek as the No 2 figure in their country, the revered uncle and mentor of Kim Jong-un, the paramount leader.

Then on Monday state-run television showed two green-uniformed guards pulling a glum-faced Jang by the armpits from a meeting of the ruling party after he was denounced for faction-building, womanising, gambling and other acts, as dozens of former comrades watched.

The spectacle of Jang's humiliating dismissal and arrest was a highly unusual glimpse of a power struggle unfolding inside the nuclear-armed country. But the major impact may be outside. The video of Jang's arrest on Sunday at a Politburo meeting was released to the North Korean public, replete with tearful underlings shown denouncing him, was particularly unsettling for China.

North Korea's long-time protector and economic lifeline, China has considered strategically close relations with North Korea to be a pillar of foreign policy and a bulwark against the USmilitary presence in South Korea. Despite Chinese irritation with North Korea's nuclear tests and other bellicose behaviour, China had built a good relationship with Jang as the trusted adult who would monitor Kim, who is less than half his uncle's age.

Any shift by China concerning North Korea has the potential to significantly alter the political equilibrium in Asia, where the divided Korean peninsula has existed for more than 60 years. While there is no indication that the Chinese intend to change their view, Beijing's top leaders were surprised by Jang's abrupt downfall. "Jang was an iconic figure in North Korea, particularly with economic reform and innovation," says Zhu Feng, professor of international relations at Peking University. "He is the man China counted on to move the economy in North Korea. This is a very ominous signal."

Jang's dismissal was a shock not only because he had long been considered a core member of the country's ruling elite and a regent and confidant of Kim, who assumed power two years ago upon the death of his father, Kim Jong-il. The way Jang was dismissed was also extraordinary, as the North Korea government has almost always maintained secrecy over its inner workings, power struggles and skulduggery during the more than six decades of rule by the Kim family.

"Kim Jong-un was declaring at home and abroad that he is now the truly one and only leader in the North, that he will not tolerate a No 2," says Yang Moo-jin, an analyst at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

Jang had visited China on a number of occasions and had been considered the most important advocate of the Chinese style of economic overhaul that the government in Beijing has been urging North Korea to embrace.

At 67, Jang is part of the same generation as China's leaders. Unlike the 30-year-old Kim - who has not been to China and who remains a mystery despite the lineage to his grandfather, North Korea's revolutionary founder, Kim Il-sung - Jang was seen by Beijing as a steady hand and a trusted conduit into North Korea's top leadership. He was one of China's few high-level North Korean interlocutors.

On a six-day visit to Beijing last year, Jang met President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. Special economic zones, where Chinese and other foreign investors would get preferential treatment in North Korea, were high on the agenda.

Just last month North Korea's official media announced that 14 new special economic zones would be opened and, although relatively small, they were seen as a sign of fruition of some of the reforms China has advocated.

"Those zones were a consequence of Jang's efforts," Zhu says. "It's possible Jang went too far on decentralising and that threatened Kim's position."

China's Foreign Ministry offered restrained comments regarding Jang's dismissal, calling it an internal affair of North Korea.

"We will stay committed to promoting the traditional friendly, co-operative relationship" between China and North Korea, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said.

Still, China's official media gave prominent attention to the accusations against Jang, copying some of the florid language used in North Korea's own state news media that recited the litany of his transgressions at party expense: womanising, gambling, drug abuse, "wining and dining at back parlours of deluxe restaurants", and showing a politically motivated ambition to challenge Kim as the "unitary centre".

Video: Kim Jong-Un cements his power with purge of uncle: expert

Also among the crimes for which Jang stood accused was selling resources cheaply, an accusation that appears to have been aimed directly at China, the biggest buyer of North Korea's iron ore and minerals.

Soon after assuming power, Kim complained that North Korea's resources, one of its few sources of outside income, were being sold too cheaply. He demanded higher prices for minerals, rare earths and coal, exported by the growing number of joint ventures between China and North Korea. Kim's complaints angered bargain-conscious Chinese mine operators, several of whom abandoned their North Korean operations. Now the climate for Chinese investment in North Korea, which was not particularly good, would be likely to worsen, says Andrei Lankov, a professor of history at Kookmin University in Seoul.

Jang's demotion raised the possibility of further instability in North Korea at a time when China is already confronting increased tensions with Japan and South Korea.

In China there is an overriding fear that the North Korean government - an ally dating to the Korean war - could collapse. That, some fear, could lead to the reunification of the Korean Peninsula under a government in South Korea allied with the United States. "China worries about instability which might be provoked by such acts" as Jang's dismissal, Lankov says.

Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst at Sejong Institute in South Korea, says the dismissal could signal more internal strife. "Given the extremely harsh stance against Jang and his followers," he says, "a round of bloody purges will be inevitable as the regime roots out poisonous weeds from its ranks."

Another concern for China was the question of whether Kim would conduct a new nuclear test, says Roger Cavazos, a US expert on North Korea, who is visiting Shanghai.

In February, in an act of open defiance to Beijing, Kim authorised the country's third nuclear test. China had urged him not to risk open confrontation with the US by detonating the weapon. Shortly afterwards, in a rare public criticism, President Xi Jinping accused North Korea of creating regional instability for "selfish gains".

The closer North Korea gets to demonstrating that it can miniaturise a nuclear weapon to fit atop a missile, the more the US will increase its missile defences in the region.

As Kim rearranges the top echelons of the government, the military could emerge the winner, says Cai Jian, deputy director of the Centre for Korean Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. It was likely "the military forces will become stronger" and that the "hardliners will become more hardline".

Cavazos agreed: "The military was demonstrating its loyalty to Kim Jong-un, and Kim Jong-un was demonstrating his loyalty to the military."