Uncertainty stalks China-N Korea ties with ‘assassination’ of Kim Jong-un’s pro-Beijing half-brother
The death of Kim Jong-nam may add further tension to China’s already strained relations with its troublesome neighbour, analysts say
China and North Korea are headed for another round of tensions and uncertainty if the death of Kim Jong-nam is confirmed as an assassination by agents of his half-brother, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, diplomatic observers said.
Kim Jong-nam and his executed uncle Jang Sung-taek had close ties with China, and an assassination would no doubt irk Beijing, analysts said.
But in Dandong, the biggest Chinese city on the border with North Korea, there was no sign on Wednesday of any fallout from the suspected assassination in Malaysia on Monday.
Residents said all was normal and a travel agency owner, who only gave his surname Lin, said tours to North Korea had not been affected.
Events to mark the 75th anniversary of late leader Kim Jong-il also went ahead at North Korea’s consulate in Shenyang, Liaoning province.
Lu Chao, director of the Border Study Institute at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, attended the event.
Lu said a vice-chairman of the province’s political consultative conference was also at the ceremony, suggesting that exchanges between the two countries were continuing.
In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang gave only a terse response to requests for comment on Kim’s death, saying China was closely monitoring developments.
In a commentary published on its social media account, People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, said that even if the assassination was confirmed it would not have a big impact on security on the Korean peninsula.
It said the region was already facing uncertainty from a joint military exercise between South Korea and the United States planned for next month, as well as Seoul’s expected deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence anti-missile system.
Ties between North Korea and China have been strained as Beijing has expressed dismay over Pyongyang’s nuclear tests and missile launches and lent its weight to United Nations sanctions. At the same time Kim Jong-un has not visited China.
China is under pressure from other countries, including the US, to impose more sanctions against North Korea but Beijing is reluctant to do so because the collapse of the regime in Pyongyang could lead to a flood of refugees to the border, and deprive Beijing of a buffer zone to keep US troops at bay.
But analysts said Kim Jong-nam’s death could make relations between China and North Korea more vulnerable.
Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Dong said the suspected assassination could be an attempt by Kim Jong-un to land a blow against China. “Kim Jong-nam was pro-China and he was also an alternative North Korean leader if Kim Jong-un’s regime collapsed,” Wong said. “Kim Jong-un is not in harmony with Beijing.”
In a book by Japanese journalist Yoji Gomi, Kim Jong-nam, who lived in exile in Beijing and Macau, was quoted as saying he was “never alone” in the Chinese capital.
According to Gomi, Kim Jong-nam did not know if China was protecting or monitoring him, but having him in its orbit could be a “political card” for Beijing.
At the 2012 launch of F ather Kim Jong-il and Me: Kim Jong-nam’s Exclusive Confession, Gomisaid the exile’s Western education and experience in China had made Kim Jong-nam an advocate for Chinese-style opening and reform in North Korea.
Jang Sung-taek, the uncle of both half-brothers and another reported advocate of reform, was in charge of public security and business with China before he was purged and executed by Kim Jong-un in 2013. Jang was reportedly accused by the Pyongyang regime of selling off resources cheaply to China.
Hwang Jae-ho, professor of international relations at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, said Kim Jong-nam’s death “will surely dismay Beijing”.
“If it really turned out that it was planned by Kim Jong-un, it just showed how brutal the North Korean regime was,” Hwang said.
“Pyongyang would not take the risk [of killing Kim Jong-nam] if he was on Chinese territory. But he was in a third country, and China could not intervene.”
Lee Kyu-tae, from South Korea’s Catholic Kwandong University, said the death could provoke more struggles for power in Pyongyang, but for now, Kim Jong-un had prevailed by getting rid of his half-brother, presenting a dilemma for China. “Kim Jong-un will press ahead with his nuclear development. China has tolerated it for three years. Whether it will still be as tolerant is a big problem,” Lee said.
Cai Jian, a Shanghai-based analyst on Sino-Korean relations, said Kim Jong-un’s consolidation of power, together with North Korea’s growing military strength could give Kim greater bargaining power when dealing with US President Donald Trump.
Shi Yuanhua, from Shanghai’s Fudan University, said North Korea’s leader may bear grudges against China, but in the end Pyongyang could not survive without Beijing.
Additional reporting by Laura Zhou, Choi Chi-yuk and Liu Zhen