(Commentary) North Korea is not a client state that China can control

World | 21 Aug 2017 1:30 pm

Below is an article titled "North Korea and the United States: Can China stop the war?” by Dominic Lam Man-Kit, founding chairman of World Eye Organization and World Culture Organization, and journalist Mark O’Neill. This was a result of their recent discussion on the North Korea missile crisis:

"The westerners mistakenly believe that North Korea is a client state which China can control, like the countries of Eastern Europe that used to be run by the Soviet Union. They are wrong. The North Koreans are proud and arrogant. All we have over other countries is that the president will take the calls of our ambassador.”

These were the words of a Chinese journalist who had lived for several years in Pyongyang. Mark O’Meill met him during one of his three visits to the city. "The foreigners who live there know almost nothing of what is going on. The best informed are the Chinese who have the advantage of a long stay, knowledge of Korean and contact, if limited, with the regime”. The reporter continued.

Mark O’Neill’s last visit was during the rule of Kim Jong-il, father of current president Kim Jong-un who succeeded him in December 2011. His Chinese friend explained that China’s leaders had enjoyed good personal relations with Kim Il-Sung, founder of the regime. He studied at a high school in Jilin city and spoke Mandarin; with Chinese, he was a guerilla leader in Manchuria in the war against Japan.

But this friendship diminished with his son, Kim Jong Il, who did not speak Mandarin and had no personal experience with Chinese leaders. While he visited China regularly, he ignored the repeated advice of his hosts to follow their example and reform his economy: they offered the model of economic prosperity while keeping the one-party political system intact.

As a result of his refusal, the North Korean economy continued to deteriorate. China chose to continue supplying fuel, foodstuffs, fertilizer and other essential goods; North Korea could not pay the full price for them – but Beijing maintained the supply in order to maintain a minimum level of life for the population.

Things deteriorated further with the presidency of Kim Jong Un. Beijing did not regard him as a suitable choice, because he was too young and, unlike his father when he took office, had no experience of government.

Since taking office, he has never visited Beijing – an unthinkable act of disloyalty toward the government that rescued his country from extinction in 1950 and has saved it from economic collapse after the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since then, Moscow has refused to supply the goods at ‘friendship prices’ it had provided for the previous 40 years.

In December 2013, Kim ordered the execution of his uncle Jang Song Thaek, a veteran politician, the leader closest to Beijing and the person many in China believed would be the best president. This execution, and his public humiliation, was also a humiliation for Beijing.

Since then, relations between the two nations have deteriorated. China is caught between a rock and a hard place. If it cut off all trade and commercial ties with North Korea, mass starvation and economic collapse would result, leading to social chaos and a possible flood of refugees into northeast China. Such turmoil could lead to the end of the regime and a takeover by the South.

So China continues its program of trade and assistance of essential goods to North Korea. But Kim continues to ignore Beijing’s repeated calls to end his nuclear and missile programs and use his scarce resources to develop the economy and improve the miserable livelihood of his population.

Since Kim has very limited personal connection with Chinese leaders or officials, so he is unwilling to hear them or listen to their advice. Does he listen to the advice of anyone?

Kenji Fujimoto, the Japanese sushi chef of Kim Jong Il from 1988 to 2001, described a bacchanalian palace life of expensive wine and cognac, beautiful young women and banquets that lasted for four days. He said Jong Un loved basketball, roller-blading, snowboarding and skiing, was a skilled golfer and liked driving a Mercedes.

Kim’s ruling style increasingly resembles that of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator who created North Korea after World War Two and was the model for Kim Il Sung. After purges that removed those close to him, his staff and advisers were terrified; few dared to tell him uncomfortable truths. He is isolated and cut off from the world, believing the idolatry about himself in the official media.

Fast forward to August 2017. We are closer to a war in Korea than at any time since 1953. Kim is threatening to launch four missiles into waters 30-40 km from the U.S. territory of Guam. President Trump said this week that his administration would deploy "fire and fury like the world has never seen” if threatened by North Korea. Will he order a unilateral missile strike against North Korean missile and nuclear bases, as he did against Syria in April?

Trump, and many in the west, believe that it is in the power of Beijing to stop and control Kim. They are mistaken. China’s leaders have some influence and economic leverage but not control, even less on Kim than on his father.

Will we have a war – and its unimaginable consequences -- based on this wrong or misunderstood information?

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About the writers:

Dominic Lam Man-Kit is the founding chairman of World Eye Organization and World Culture Organization, as well as a member of the US President’s Committee for the Arts and Humanities during President George H.W. Bush’s administration.

Mark O’Neil is a journalist, teacher and author with more than 35 years of experience in Asia. At the invitation of the government, he visited North Korea three times, a rare and precious opportunity.

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