December 17, 2013, by Tony Hong

Still as Close as Lips and Teeth?

By Dr. David O’Brien,

Assistant Professor, School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China.

Mao Zedong said that China and North Korea are “as close as lips and teeth”. We can only wonder what Mao – a master of political theatre – would have made of the stunning purge of Jang Sung Taek, uncle of young Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, and widely believed to have been the power behind the throne in the Democratic People’s Republic (DPRK). 

On December 8th photographs were published on the front page of the state newspaper Rodong Sinmun of Jang being dragged from a meeting of Politburo of the Workers’ Party which was being presided over, we are told, by Kim. Four days later another photograph was published showing Jang being led, head bowed, from a courtroom to his execution.

Jang, who had stood at Kim’s shoulder during the official mourning ceremonies for Kim senior was denounced as “despicable human scum who was worse than a dog”, was accused of plotting a coup to “overthrow the state [and] to grab the supreme power of our party and state.” as well as drug taking, womanizing and producing pornography and selling off “precious resources of the country at cheap prices” and “squandering foreign currency at casinos”.   

Jang’s wife Kim Kyong Hui, sister of the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il seems to have survived the purge. On Saturday (Dec 14th), the North’s Korean Central News Agency included Ms Kim’s on a list of top officials appointed to a national committee in charge of organising a state funeral for former senior Workers’ Party official Kim Kuk-tae. (Sydney Morning Herald December 16 2013)

Recent events will have been watched very closely in Beijing. Jang was seen as close to China and a strong advocate for Chinese-style economic reform. He had visited the PRC as recently as August and was a key mover behind the opening of special economic zones along the Chinese-North Korean border (Economist Dec 13 2013). But as with so much else in the secretive state, it is unclear as to what this means for an increasingly fractious relationship.

China has grown frustrated with some of the bellicose tactics of the new leadership. Late last year the foreign ministry said it was “deeply concerned” over North Korea’s ballistic missile programme (Financial Times December 2 2012). China then backed UN sanctions on the DPRK following a third nuclear test in March.

According to Paul Haenle, former China director on the U.S. National Security Council and White House representative to the stalled six-party talks with the DPRK; “China is coming to the conclusion that North Korea is becoming a liability and it needs to take steps to deal with it [but] I don’t think we’ll see dramatic shifts overnight and I don’t think we’ll see publicly announced shifts. This is the kind of thing that will happen gradually and will happen behind the scenes.” (Reuters April 4 2013)

On December 10th Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Jang Song Taek’s purge was an internal affair and that China wants friendly relations and hopes for stability in its neighbour (AP December 11 2013).

While so much is unclear about Kim Jong Un – even his age is uncertain, he is either in his late twenties or early thirties – it had been believed that the Swiss-educated Supreme Leader favoured a gradual economic opening up.

There is much speculation that the execution of his uncle means he has now taken control. Likewise there is much speculation of exactly the opposite; that it means that he is losing his grip on power. Whatever is happening, it is vital for China that mass unrest and the possibly millions of refugees that would come with it, does not break out on China’s border.

Perhaps significantly the day after Mr Jang was arrested it was reported in the South Korean media that North Korea had signed a contract to develop a major industrial zone in Hamkyung province, with the money coming from Chinese investors (Joongang Daily December 9 2013).

Posted in Uncategorized