Sources: Cathcart and on Chinese Reactions to Kim Jong Il’s Death

January 25, 2012 7:00 AM

We are always interested in new information on the opaque DPRK-China relationship. Adam Cathcart at has done the service of assembling a quite remarkable 78-page dossier of every single thing that both parties said in the week or so following Kim Jong Il’s death; diplomatic messages from China at all levels, Chinese press coverage, North Korean coverage of the Chinese reaction and some Chinese think-tank and even Weibo responses.

An added benefit is that translations have been reworked and Cathcart adds insightful commentary. It's a long slog through the highly ritualized linguistic twists and turns. In some cases the material simply reveals new mysteries; in others, it confirms what we already suspected. But here are some highlights:

  • There is still some controversy about whether the Chinese were informed of Kim Jong Il’s death prior to the formal announcement and whether their intelligence service caught it. The answer to both questions appears to be “no."
  • There is also some debate about whether the delay in responding to the official announcement might have signaled disagreement about what to say. That interpretation seems a speculative stretch. Even where diplomatic relations are clear and unproblematic, drafting appropriate language can take consultation.
  • Whatever the initial reaction, we reached the conclusion from a more quick and dirty analysis that the Chinese were “doubling down”: leaving absolutely no ambiguity on where they stood. This is confirmed not only from the official announcements, but from new translations of some editorials. The following from Global Times (Huanqiu Shibao) on December 21st is of particular interest. As Cathcart notes, the Chinese is subtly different than the paper’s later English version. Four passages are worth quoting:
    • “China's attitude is very important at this moment. China must clearly signal that it will protect North Korea's independent selfrule, guarantee North Korea's transition of power from external interference, and guarantee North Korea's freedom to choose its own national way."
    • “In the long run, China should influence the development of North Korea's politics but not interfere in its internal affairs, trying its best to encourage North Korea in normal ways to take the path of sustainable development and security. Chinese intervention [干涉] in North Korea's internal affairs is a tired and also unreal notion, but for China to give up its influence would obviously severely hamper China's advantages. China has long been the biggest greatpower influence on Korea, but at no time did it engage in causing chaos in North Korea’s internal affairs.”
    • The following paragraph was almost completely omitted from the English-language version: “China does not need to worry that its support of a stable relationship with North Korea will cause tensions with South Korea, the U.S., and Japan. China supports stability, and takes an stand clearly opposed to upheaval [反对动荡]. Accordingly the possibility of outside countries having issues with North Korea is accordingly smaller. Similarly, this means that Sino-North Korean friendship cannot be effected by the change of power in North Korea. In a word, Sino-North Korean friendship is the most important cornerstone of today's stability in Northeast Asia.”
    • And finally, if there are any doubts about China’s confidence in its ability shape events, let’s put those to rest; from a separate editorial on the issue. “We should be clear: In the world, and especially in the political environment of East Asia, China is already the active shaping power [ 塑造性力量]. Opposition and resistance to China’s attitude would be a waste of effort [毫不费力].
    • Any questions?

Cathcart includes a range of commentary from Chinese scholars, and the opinion there is predictably more diverse. A number of commenters express a palpable disdain for the country’s past leadership, noting food problems, over-militarization, lack of preparation for the succession, and doubts that the new leadership will pursue reforms. But there is little divergence from the view that China has to step up and guarantee that things go smoothly. Hu Xijin, the editor of Huanqiu Shibao/Global Time has around 1,500,000 followers on Weibo and wasted no time—precisely four minutes from the official announcement—to issue this:

  • “North Korea announced that Kim Jong-il is dead. North Korea's stability and future direction are now being tested. The ROK, the US, and Japan definitely will try their best to effect North Korea, even to threaten it. China certainly cannot back down during the key moment. China absolutely must maintain the special Korean-Chinese relationship, because this matter relates to China's strategic advantages in Northeast Asia. China must aid North Korea to move forward on the path of normal prosperous development [繁荣发展].”

A string of subsequent posts underline that China needs to be vigilant against the meddling or provocations from the US, South Korea and Japan.

The dossier then reproduces all of the KCNA coverage of the Chinese reaction. This coverage has a quality well-known to readers of the KCNA: a solipsistic reading of the rest of the world as joining in the mourning for the Dear Leader.

Cathcart includes two of his own thoughtful analyses,  including an expansion of a piece for Foreign Policy. While he notes a quite frank debate about North Korea in the press and academia, he also underscores that Beijing swung quite hard toward supporting the succession because of the lack of good alternatives. In the process, they necessarily engaged in some self-deception that the country might in fact open up and pursue a reformist path; from Beijing's lips to God's ears. But whether they really believe it or not is another issue. Policy appears to be framed in a classic Realpolitik—dare I say Kissingerian—mode: deal with governments as they are, not as you would like them to be.

Kudos to Cathcart.

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