China has complained loudly about America’s recent muscle-flexing, particularly its joint military exercises with South Korea. These are due to resume on September 5th with drills in the Yellow Sea, which China regards as uncomfortably close to its own shore. China began its own naval exercises in the Yellow Sea on September 1st. The official news agency, Xinhua, called them “routine”, but a decision to draw attention to them could be intended to show resolve in the face of the American and South Korean manoeuvres. The results of an international investigation into the sinking of the South Korean ship, which blamed it on North Korea, were released after Mr Kim’s last trip (his first foray abroad in four years). China has refused to accept the findings. By rolling out the red carpet again, it showed it has no plans to reconsider.
Less clear is why Mr Kim wanted to go back so soon. Much speculation has suggested that it could be related to the forthcoming party conclave, the first on such a scale since 1980. North Korea says it will be held early in September. One popular theory is that Mr Kim wants the gathering to endorse the appointment of his son, Kim Jong Un, to a senior party post. The idea would be to groom him to succeed his father, whose health has not been robust. The younger Mr Kim is in his late twenties and is believed to be jobless. Rumours of his rise as heir apparent have long been circulating, and it is plausible that his father would want to inform China if confirmation of this is imminent.
No mention was made of Kim Jong Un or the succession issue in official Chinese and North Korean reports. It is not even known if he went on the trip. But Kim Jong Il did spend some time inspecting sites related to the revolutionary days in China of his own late father, Kim Il Sung. Mr Kim spoke of the need to “hand over to the rising generation the baton of the traditional friendship” between the two countries.
And from Asia Times:
China and North Korea set aside their many differences and presented a united front to the world on the future of the peninsula, effectively repudiating the US and South Korean formula of reunification in favor of the continued division of Korea.
Whether the US policy is remembered as a successful piece of brinksmanship, counter-productive provocation, or another sacrifice of the well-being and freedom of the North Korean people for the sake of vague and unattainable goals may well depend on the fate of another diplomatic initiative that is probably closer to Obama’s heart: the high-stakes effort to roll back Iran’s nuclear program.
Certainly, the tightened embrace between China and North Korea cannot be pleasing to Barack Obama or South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in the near term.
See also “China calls for compromise on NKorea talks” from AP.