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Friday, September 9, 2011     GET REAL

A clue from China about the future of N. Korea

By Donald Kirk,

SEOUL — China’s leaders are probably as skeptical as anyone about the nature of the leadership – and succession to Kim Jong-Il — in North Korea but just aren’t saying so. Instead, Chinese academics reflect the doubts and qualms with a freedom if not impunity that suggests the powers-that-be in Beijing more or less agree.


A bus crosses the border between China and North Korea in Wonjong-ri, Rason, Aug. 29.     Reuters/Carlos Barria
Among the more outspoken, Professor Liu Ming of the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, delivered a hard-hitting analysis this week at which he talked frankly of the disintegration of the power structure and the prospects for the Dear Leader’s heir apparent, third son Kim Jong-Un.

“Within three to four years after Kim Jong-Un takes power, Liu predicted,“ he will be very cautious of grip on the power, avoid risking to take any big policy change.” The kid’s first priority, said Liu, will be “winning over more senior officials and promotion of a batch of young officials and officers” all for “consolidating his power base.”

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As for “keeping strong and hard-line policy,” Liu went on, all that “will be his necessary tactics in the transitional period.” Liu’s remarks, at a forum of the conservative Asan Institute for Policy Studies here, were believed to be in line with the outlook of Chinese leaders, including President Hu Jintao, who last received Kim Jong-Il in Beijing in May.

The dichotomy between the effusive courtesy shown Kim Jong-Il and the reality of what the Chinese think of him and his regime has always been a matter of speculation. China not only provides North Korea with almost all its fuel and much of its food but supports the North in the United Nations, refusing to condemn the North for the sinking of the South Korean corvette the Cheonan in March of last year and pleading for “stability” after the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea last November.

Top-level Chinese officials, moreover, lined up to greet Kim Jong-Il at the border after his recent visit to Russia, plying him with the usual flattery while Kim makes the case for his son to succeed him. The fact that Kim Jong-Un has not been seen accompanying his father on his visits to China is seen as a sign that the Chinese still are not all that excited about having to support the rise of a third generation of Kim dynasty rule.

Liu offered a dire forecast that Chinese officials are not likely to want to contradict.

“Without Kim Jong-Il rule, the personality cult will be phased out and some long-restrained opinion and behavior will gradually burst out,” he said, predicting “the three-four years after Kim Jong-Il “will be a very dangerous period” while Kim Jong-Un and his family will regain power and order.” The kid, said Liu, “will try to re-establish the personality cult again, however,” even as “less and less people will continue to believe a mystified Kim Jong-Un.

In fact, said Liu, “many people, including the military people, doubt the legitimacy of the hereditary succession for three generations and particularly the qualification of Kim Jong-Un.” The father’s drive to promote his son as his successor, meanwhile, is gaining momentum in the run-up to next year, a pivotal year for the future of the Korean peninsula. Kim Jong-Il turns 70 in February, and two months, on April 15, later the whole North Korean system explodes in jubilation over the 100th anniversary of the birth of his father, Kim Il[-sung, who ruled for nearly 50 year until his death in July 1994.

And just to maintain the symmetry, Kim Jong-Un celebrates a birthday in January — it’s expected to be called his 30th even though he’s believed to be two years younger than that. It’s not just that the line-up of numbers, 30, 70 and 100, is seen as a portentous omen. The “young general,” as he’s referred to in North Korean rhetoric, has got to appear a little older than he really is if there’s any chance of convincing a reluctant older generation, including his powerful uncle-in-law, Jang Song-Taek, husband of Kim Jong-Il’s sister, Kim Kyong-Hui, of his credibility.

It was all a part of the build-up that father and son appeared in public on Friday, the 63rd anniversary of the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as a country. North Korean television showed both of them reviewing a military parade, clapping in unison “as thousands of goose-stepping troops marched and columns of motorized units displayed multiple launch rocket systems and other military hardware” according to Yonhap, the South Korean news agency.

The occasion was not exactly a great event on the scale of the 65th anniversary last October 10 of the founding of the Workers’ Party, when the foreign media was let in to Pyongyang to see father and son at a similar parade.

That was a bigger deal simply because they had never been seen together in public before, and the occasion reaffirmed the succession. In addition, foreign journalists were taken on guided tours around the capital, all to contribute to the importance of the occasion. They all filed effusive stories, none more so than that of an Associated Press correspondent who wrote of having “squealed with delight” when taken to see something or other.

North Korea’s coverage of Friday’s parade also carried a message as the North prepares to emerge as “a strong and prosperous nation” by next year and among the world’s “advanced nations” by 2020.

“The live footage showed that Kim, wearing his typical khaki Mao suit and sunglasses, appeared to be healthy,” as Yonhap described the North Korean TV report. Kim had not appeared at a similar parade three years ago on the 60th anniversary of the founding of the party, Yonhap noted “sparking speculation on his health” after he was believed to have suffered a stroke two months earlier.

For all the forced optimism surrounding the succession, however, North Korea suffers from endemic problems of hunger and disease that have forced that appear to be worsening.

The United Nation’s undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Valerie Amos, is expected to go to North Korea next month to try to get a fix on what’s going on. South Korea and the United States have both sent in some aid for flood relief — a portent, perhaps, of softening attitudes.

Incredibly, South Korea’s conservative president, Lee Myung-Bak, who stopped massive shipments of food and fertilizer to the North after his inauguration in February 2008, still seems to hold out the possibility of a summit with Kim Jong-Il. All he needs, he said, is “a guarantee that (North Korea) will bring peace to the Korean Peninsula and won’t make provocations” — a climb-down, possibly, from his previous demands that North Korea show signs of actually giving up its nuclear program.

The future, though, will lie with the kid, in the view of Liu Ming.

“Whether Kim Jong-Un will take a limited reform policy and is resolved to forgo nuclear program may depend on several variables,” said Liu., Among them:

“The worsening degree of its economic situation;

“U.S. and South Korea policy, reactionary or coercive;

“The influence of conservative group in the North Korea military, falling into disgrace or maintaining robust;

“The position of the young and relatively liberal elites.”

And then, not least, said Liu, there was always “the effect of Chinese advice and policy influence on Kim Jong-Un.”

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