Kim Jong-il headed to China at the end of last month less than four months after his last visit. This timing was the more surprising since it meant he missed Jimmy Carter. The former US president arrived in Pyongyang to secure the release of a US prisoner, Aijalon Mahli Gomes. […] Last August it was Bill Clinton who did the honours, in a trip clearly para-diplomatic in intent and outcome: he met Kim Jong-il, and it looked briefly as if US-DPRK relations might thaw. Carter had no such luck. Indeed, Kim Jong-il’s snub – couldn’t he have waited for a day? – sends its own message.
From Washington, the Nelson Report offered different versions in successive issues. John Kerry, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was keen to go get Gomes, who is also his constituent; but the State Department vetoed this lest it look too official and governmental. Alternatively, it was Kim Jong-il who on July 30 nixed both Kerry and Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico – who has been on mercy missions to Pyongyang before. Kim wanted Jim. But in that case, why did he stand him up? Possibly because the Obama administration, concerned at Carter’s well-known penchant for freelance diplomacy, kept its distance from this trip – in contrast to the close liaison last year over Bill Clinton’s visit, though that too was nominally private.
But America is hardly the main thing on the dear leader’s mind just now. His sudden return to China is almost certainly related to the imminent, and rare, delegates’ meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK). Announced on June 26 as due in early September, sources in Seoul suggest it will be held on September 6-8. Anticipation is strong that Kim’s third son and putative heir Kim Jong-eun will at last be revealed in public and perhaps take on some official post. His full designation as successor is not expected until 2012: Juche 100 in the DPRK calendar as the centenary of its founder Kim Il-sung’s birth.
What has this to do with China? One possible precedent occurred a decade ago. In May 2000 Kim Jong-il made a secret visit to Beijing, just a fortnight before he hosted Kim Dae-jung in Pyongyang for the first ever inter-Korean summit. While so fiercely independent a regime would bridle at any suggestion of needing to seek anyone’s permission for anything, nonetheless it was prudent to ensure that so radical a foreign policy initiative was acceptable to the DPRK’s main protector and aid donor.
The same applies now, only more so. A delicate succession process, a clapped-out economy and a slow-burn nuclear crisis add up to a major headache for all concerned. In better times Kim can ignore China. But this is a tense juncture. The dear leader needs Hu Jintao, whom he probably met on this trip in Changchun, to bless Kim Jong-eun’s succession – and not dally with potential rivals like number one son Kim Jong-nam, living in quasi-exile in Macau, whose unprepossessing appearance belies an openness to much-needed reform. Kim may also be desperate for more Chinese aid, reportedly withheld on his last visit, so that Kim Jong-eun’s anointment can be marked in best Roman emperor style with panem et circenses: bread and circuses.
The question is what Hu will have demanded in return. Above all Beijing fears instability in its wayward neighbour. Its purported scepticism over March’s sinking of the ROK corvette Cheonan reaffirmed a refusal to paint the DPRK into a corner. Yet China is fed up with Kim Jong-il, and will hardly miss a chance to bring him into line at a moment of weakness. This time the price of yet more political and financial aid may have been twofold: real economic reform, and showing more willing as regards the long-stalled nuclear issue.
A sign of hope regarding economic reform, Pak Pong-ju is back after three years in the wilderness. As chemicals minister in 2002 Pak led an economic delegation to South Korea. In 2003 Pak was promoted to prime minister; on his watch the joint venture Kaesong Industrial Zone (KIZ) got up and running. In 2007 he was sacked in a backlash against reform. He resurfaced in August as a WPK deputy director, said to be in light industry: long the bailiwick of Kim Kyong-hui, the dear leader’s sister and Mrs Jang.
As for the nuclear issue, China’s negotiator Wu Dawei has been shuttling from Pyongyang to Seoul peddling a new three-stage plan to kick-start the stalled, if not dead, Six Party Talks (6PT). Wu got no joy in Seoul, whose foreign minister was away. Neither the ROK nor US will budge unless Pyongyang has something serious and substantial to say, both on the nuclear issue and the Cheonan. Such a hardline stance risks keeping them both out of the loop, at a time of ferment in Pyongyang. Yet Obama in particular has little choice at this juncture. Already assailed as he is by outrageous slings and arrows in an ever more toxic domestic political milieu, in the run-up to mid-term Congressional elections the last thing he can afford is the extra charge of being soft on Kim Jong-il.
Kim Jong-il’s Chinese jaunt –nominally secret, though the special train and convoys are hard to hide –took an unusual route from Manpo to Jian around 1 a.m. on August 26, reaching Jilin by 9 am. There Kim visited Yuwen middle school, which his father attended during 1927-30. If Kim Jong-eun came too, this doubtless served to cement the idea of revolutionary heredity.
On August 27 the Jilin-Changchun expressway was closed so Kim’s convoy could make the journey in safety and solitude. There he met Hu Jintao, and probably introduced his son. Leaving Changchun on August 28, Kim was thought to be headed home; but by nightfall his train had not crossed the border. Instead, he made one more stop-off in Harbin before heading home.. Perhaps it suits the dear leader and son to be out of town and miss the frantic last-minute preparations and machinations for the Big Day in early September. Yet such an absence does seem surprising. Are they ultra-confident, or running scared?
Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University, and a freelance consultant, writer and broadcaster on Korean affairs.