China Scrambles for Clues after Kim’s Death (Updated)

Xinhua announced the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in a two-sentence dispatch:

Kim Jong Il, top leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), passed away last Saturday at the age of 69 “from a great mental and physical strain,” the DPRK’s official KCNA news agency reported on Monday.

Xinhua also published an accompanying timeline of “key facts” from Kim’s life.

Yet despite the fact that Beijing has been Pyongyang’s staunchest ally, experts surmise that China’s leaders, like those in the rest of the world, are uncertain what to expect now from North Korea, as Kim’s son, Kim Jong-un has been designated the “Great Successor.” The Sydney Morning Herald reports:

It seems that not even China, North Korea’s only ally, can predict how North Korea will respond or whether the “Dear Leader’s” son and anointed successor, Kim Jong-un, can assume firm control of his starving and nuclear-armed nation.

[…] Chinese analysts said Beijing would continue its policy of prioritising stability over all else in its dealings with North Korea but would prepare for the unexpected.

“We might see some instability caused by America or South Korea pushing for unification or bringing more pressure for regime collapse,” said Cai Jian, professor of international relations at Fudan University.

Bloomberg has reposted the official statement emailed by North Korea’s official KCNA news agency following the announcement of Kim’s death.

Below is the announcement of Kim’s death from the official North Korean news broadcast:

Update (Dec. 19): The Chinese government has now expressed sorrow over Kim’s death and pledged support for North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un. According to Xinhua, the Foreign Ministry offered “deep condolences” over Kim’s death during a press conference:

“We are shocked to learn that DPRK top leader comrade Kim Jong Il passed away and we hereby express our deep condolences on his demise and send sincere regards to the DPRK people,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu when responding to a question from the press.

In an official statement, China’s leaders offered more expansive condolences (via Reuters):

“We feel incomparably anguished, and offer our deepest condolences to the entire North Korean people,” said China’s top leaders, in a statement read out on state television’s main evening news.

“The Chinese people will always cherish his memory,” said their message, which called Kim a “great leader” who was a “close friend of China.”

“We are sure that the North Korean people will abide by Comrade Kim Jong-il’s will and unify around the Korean Workers’ Party, and under the leadership of Comrade Kim Jong-un turn their anguish into strength,” it added.

Meanwhile, the New York Times looks at fears within China that instability could break out in North Korea, and at efforts to work with the new leadership to prevent that from happening:

The greatest concern for China is whether Mr. Kim’s death will lead to a rise in tensions on the divided Korean peninsula. That could happen if generals in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, try to reinforce their hold on power through aggression toward South Korea. Unlike China, where the Communist Party stands as the ultimate authority, the military is the final arbiter in North Korea.

Mr. Kim’s death “means that China will have to assume a heavier responsibility over the relationship in order to maintain peace and stability on the Korean peninsula,” said Xu Wenji, a professor of Northeast Asian studies at Jilin University and a former Chinese envoy to South Korea.

Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, said, “The death significantly enhances uncertainty on the peninsula.” He added: “In my personal view, the succession is very hastily arranged and Kim Jong-un is very ill prepared to take over.”

“Frankly speaking, there is a substantial chance of political instability in North Korea,” he said. “This is based on the nature of the regime, the inadequate process of succession and economic hardships in the country.”

On his blog, the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos explores the nature of the regime by writing about Kim, his impact on North Korea, and his resistance to Chinese-style economic and political reforms:

As he aged, he became a singular figure in the world: as easy to lampoon as any mad king, but armed at a level that made him far more dangerous. Kim’s defiance angered even his most tolerant allies. In Beijing, Chinese leaders tried to sell him on their vision of prosperity without freedom, but he resisted, seeing, perhaps, too much uncertainty. In his final year, he showed little sign of retreat, as his forces sank a South Korean vessel, revealed a new uranium-enrichment program, and shelled the island of Yeonpyeong. Kim died as he lived, emboldened by his own deceptions and unhurried by the urgent deprivation of his people. When it came to “the building of a thriving nation,” he left, at his life’s end on Saturday, December 17th, the hardest work untouched, and wreckage of his own making.

Kim’s death has been a focus of attention and fascination within China, in both the official media and also in the twittersphere. The Global Times has produced a special section on the death of Kim Jong-il. But not everyone online shared official statements of sorrow and reverence. According to the New York Times article linked above, Netease posted a page offering a satirical view of Kim’s death:

Netease, a popular Internet portal, ran a topics page with a headline saying: “Kim Jong-il’s Death Shows the Importance of Losing Weight.” The subtitle was even more subversive: “A government is just like a human body, in that neither can afford to be too fat.”

As of Monday afternoon PST, it was no longer available. The Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time blog translates some reactions on Sina Weibo microblogging service, where Kim Jong-il’s death is a trending topic:

Among the laughing emoticons, many come attached to jokes referencing the film “2012,” in which China builds arks to save humankind’s elite from an impending cataclysm.

“Kim Jong Il has gotten on the boat,” quipped a Weibo user writing under the handle Chongqing Ocean. “I’m starting to believe 2012 is really going to happen,”

Others accompany tongue-in-cheek posts noting that Kim’s death comes closely on the heels of the death of Czech playwright and Velvet Revolution hero Vaclav Havel.

“Havel has made yet another contribution to mankind,” wrote user Caijun Zhinan. “He decided to take Kim Jong Il with him when he went.”

Read all of CDT’s coverage of Kim Jong-il and North Korea.

DPRK top leader Kim Jong Il passes away due to mental and physical strain, from Xinhua
China scrambles for clues after Kim’s death, from Sydney Morning Herald
Leader’s son Jong-un called “great successor” by media, from Reuters
North Korea’s Kim Built ‘Invincible Military,’ KCNA News Agency Says: Text, from Bloomberg
China says confident in North Korea’s new leader, from Reuters
China Moves to Ensure Stability in North Korea, from the New York Times
Global Times special coverage of Kim’s death
After Kim Jong-il, from the New Yorker
Chinese Reactions to Kim Jong Il’s Death, from China Real Time
CDT North Korea page
CDT Kim Jong-il page

[This post was originally published at 11:23 pm pst, Dec. 18 and was updated at 3:00 pm PST on Dec. 19.]


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