Analysts: China ‘losing influence over North Korea’

Analysts: China ‘losing influence over North Korea

Reuben F Johnson, Beijing – IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly — 04 February 2014


The execution of Chang Song-thaek in December has curtailed Chinese influence in and understanding of North Korea’s leadership, analysts in Beijing have claimed. Source: PA

China’s influence over its North Korean client state is at an all-time low, according to sources in Beijing, who say it has few – if any – levers left to control Pyongyang’s behaviour.

The US special envoy for North Korea, Glyn Davies, recently visited Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo to drum up support for restarting the six-party talks with North Korea, which broke off in 2009.

Washington’s goal is to see North Korea close down its nuclear weapons programme in exchange for expanded food and energy aid. Beijing’s ties to Pyongyang are key to this effort, but sources in the Chinese capital said it has minimal influence on North Korea’s behaviour.

In previous decades one of the chief channels of communication between the two states was based on ties between the two countries’ military establishments: a relationship that dated back to the Korean War when the Korean People’s Army (KPA) and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fought side by side.

The ties between the two armed forces were fairly active for many years, but “almost all of those people on both sides have died off or are retired”, said a long-time North Korea analyst based in Beijing. “The current leaderships in the KPA and PLA have no set of shared camaraderie on the battlefield to bring them into contact with one another. Also, by and large the senior officers in the two forces do not trust each another.”

The other major link between the two states was Chang Song-thaek, the uncle of the current supreme leader, Kim Jong-un. Chang had long-standing ties to the Chinese leadership, witnessed by the fact that he was accorded almost all of the trappings of an allied head of state on his recent official visits to Beijing. He was also, by all accounts, heavily involved in the various business interests that have grown rapidly across the board between China and North Korea’s Hamgyong province.

Kim executed Chang in December 2013, with some analysts saying that his advocacy of Chinese-style economic reforms had been viewed with suspicion. Whatever the reasons, his death has left Beijing with “very little insight into the North Korean leadership now”, said the analyst. “For all practical purposes they have almost no idea as to what is going on.”

Other North Korea specialists in Beijing suggest that it is in Pyongyang’s interest to maintain this state of affairs. “The uncertainty ups the stakes in any possible resumption of the six-party talks and increases the amount of possible aid and concessions that Kim can extort from the other nations involved: the US, South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia,” said one Chinese analyst. “So this ‘fear of the unknown’ ultimately works in North Korea’s favour.”

(449 words)

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