By Sunny Lee
BEIJING — Just like many Chinese experts, Jin Jingyi, professor of international politics at the Department of Korean Studies and deputy director of the Korean Peninsula Research Center at Peking University, dismisses the popular view that the main discussions at the summit between Kim Jong-il and Hu Jintao in Changchun was about the “heir apparent.”
A dominant outside narrative speculated that Kim went to China to have his choice of heir “approved” by the Middle Kingdom and have him get acquainted with Chinese leaders.
Jin believes the main narrative at the summit was about the economy. “What North Korea worries about most and is concerned about most is its economy,” he said in an interview.
In fact, according to Jin, the economic factor is the undercurrent for all the other items on the agenda of the summit, such as the succession, the upcoming Workers’ Party conference, six-party talks and U.N. sanctions.
It is widely expected that Kim Jong-un, the heir, will officially debut at a national conference of the Workers’ Party soon, the first to convene in 44 years.
“Of course, the party conference is important as it is an occasion to introduce some new faces in the leadership. But to successfully pull through such a national event, the leadership needs to create a festive atmosphere, with more food to go around for the public. So, North Korea requires an economy that can back the event,” said Jin.
He added that the sanctions the U.S. and South Korea imposed upon North Korea are basically economic sanctions.
After the Hu-Kim summit, China and North Korea called for the resumption of the talks — the goal being to get these sanctions lifted.
Jin said Beijing’s main talking points at the summit were about the economy as well.
China is ambitiously pushing forward an economic upgrading project in its northeastern region, covering the cities of Changchun, Jilin and Tumen (often referred to as “Chang-Ji-Tu”), near the North Korean border. These were the areas the “Dear Leader” travelled to last month.
“This region borders North Korea and without the North’s involvement, the project is unlikely to succeed. North Korea’s cooperation is very important,” said Jin.
“Chang-Ji-Tu” encompasses an area of 73,000 square kilometers, has a population of 11 million and an economic output of 360 billion yuan, according to Chinese state media.
The northeastern region is landlocked. The “Chang-Ji-Tu” industrial zone therefore requires a sea port for exports. China made an agreement to lease a pier at North Korea’s Rajin Port for 10 years in March.
Already, there are reports of building roads linking the port to the industrial zone. The Chinese project also reportedly plans to hire North Korean laborers, whose wages are cheaper than those of Chinese, to work in the industrial zone.
“So, it’s beneficial to North Korea as well,” Jin said. “Kim Jong-il’s visit likely had to do with ironing out details on the two countries’ cooperation on the project.”
In February, Pyongyang dispatched Kim Yong-il, the director of the International Affairs Department of the Workers’ Party, to the same northeastern region, apparently paving the way for Kim’s visit in late August. If so, Kim Jong-il’s visit to China was pre-planned, disowning the widespread speculation that characterized the trip as “abrupt.”
With Kim Jong-il’s visit, Sino-North Korean ties will inevitably strengthen. That becomes a counterweight to the bolstered ties between Seoul and Washington in the aftermath of the Cheonan incident.
Jin said stronger ties between Pyongyang and Beijing are not meant to be seen as the two Cold War allies, who fought against South Korea and the U.S. during the Korean War, forming again a united front against the Washington-Seoul alliance.
“What China is doing is not to confront the U.S., but to shift the international focus from geo-politics to geo-economics,” Jin said. China believes focusing on politics on the North Korean issue actually increases conflicts, he said. For South Korea and the U.S. to hold arms together and mount a tougher stance based on the focus on geopolitics, will be ineffective and will not solve the North Korean issue, he said.
The U.S. and South Korea are also likely to continue with their heavy-handed strategy on North Korea. On Monday last week, Beijing and Pyongyang called for the resumption of the six-party talks. Later on the same day, President Barak Obama slapped new financial sanctions on North Korea, aimed at its ruling elite. On Wednesday, Chinese chief nuclear envoy Wu Dawei in Washington called for the restart of the nuclear talks, urging direct bilateral contact between Pyongyang and Washington. Later on the same day, U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley dismissed Wu’s proposal.
“We’re certain that China has its own ideas on how to proceed from where we are to a better place. We have our own ideas,” Crowley said. South Korea’s top nuclear envoy Wi Sung-lak also said his country “is not ready” for the resumption of the nuclear talks.
Jin argued that the approach by South Korea and the U.S. will likely increase conflicts and suspicions. Seoul and Washington scholars have countered such an argument, saying China’s shielding North Korea from international condemnations in fact creates suspicions regarding Beijing’s true intentions with North Korea. They also urged Beijing to behave in its self-claimed status as a “responsible powerful country.”
Jin said suspicions and misunderstandings are mutual. He took an example: “There is a view in China that the joint U.S.-South Korea military drills are in fact a preparation for an invasion on North Korea,” he said.
“When I go to Seoul and tell this to the government officials and scholars, they are all up in arms, protesting vehemently that the naval exercises are defensive in nature. But I also protest: ‘Your words and acts are different too.’”