China is monitoring the implications of Jang Song-thaek's execution but does not expect it to trigger major shifts in North Korea's policies, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said yesterday.
China was hoping for political stability and economic development in North Korea, Wang said on the eve of a ceremony in Pyongyang to mark the second anniversary of the death of Kim Jong-il, the father of current leader Kim Jong-un.
Analysts said the event would provide further indications of the implications of the dramatic removal last week of Jang, Kim Jong-un's once-powerful uncle.
"Some changes have indeed occurred in North Korea. We are taking further steps to monitor North Korea's internal and foreign policies. We hope and believe that there won't be any major changes," Wang was quoted by China News Service as saying.
Wang's remarks came after phone calls with US Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday and with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday, in which they discussed how to resume the long-stalled six-party talks on denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, according to statements on the Chinese Foreign Ministry's website.
In a contrasting tone, South Korean President Park Geun-hye said that Seoul should be fully prepared for possible North Korean hostilities and warned of more "reckless provocations" from across the border.
There have been mixed signals on how last week's removal of Jang, a key figure in North Korea's engagement with China, would affect Pyongyang's relations with Beijing, its biggest ally. The Chinese Foreign Ministry called it an "internal issue" but said Beijing hoped bilateral economic ties would continue as normal. North Korean businessmen in China have reportedly been called back home. But North Korea's ambassador to China, Ji Jae-ryong, a close confidant of Jang, appears to have remained unaffected.
Experts say the presence or absence of members of Pyongyang's political elite at today's ceremony would give hints at the scale of the personnel reshuffle triggered by Jang's execution.
Amid reports by South Korean media that the young Kim's wife, Ri Sol-ju, might have had an affair with Jang when she was a singer for the Unhasu Orchestra, North Korean state television on Friday broadcast footage from last year of Ri and Kim paying homage to the embalmed corpses of his grandfather Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, said the Chosun Ilbo. Ri has been out of public sight since October 16 and her appearance at today's event will be closely watched.
Another key figure to watch would be Jang's widow and Kim's aunt, Kim Kyong-hui, who was mentioned in state media on Friday for the first time since Jang's purge. The official KCNA report said she was made a funeral committee member of a senior party official, Kim Kuk-thae, who died on Friday. This prompted many to speculate she may have survived her husband's purge.
Vice-Premier Ro Du-chol, who is believed to have been close to Jang, will also be closely watched. Ro was on the same funeral committee, discrediting reports he had fled North Korea.
"If many members of Kim's inner circle show up at the event, this will send a message that Kim's grip on power is actually more stable than many people would have thought, and the scale of the purge is not that huge," said Cai Jian, of the Centre for Korean Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. "But if not many of them show up, then this could well prove right those arguing that the execution was a result of internal instability, and the leadership is divided."
Over the weekend, KCNA showed Kim making a flurry of public appearances, which analysts said was intended to demonstrate his firm grip on power following the execution.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse