December 18, 2013

Execution of Uncle Jang Creates Uncertainty in DPRK-China Relations

By Yanliang Li

The execution of Jang Song-Thaek is the latest episode of the Kim Jong-Un power show. The unprecedented official media coverage of the purge indicates the eagerness of the young emperor to show that everything is under control. The execution marks the purge of the fifth out of seven key personnel on Kim Jong-Il’s funeral from power.

Chinese officials have avoided making public comments on this issue. But Jang’s purge almost surely leads to new uncertainties in the relations between Beijing and Pyongyang. Jang visited Beijing soon after Kim Jong-Un’s accession and has been a major operator in China-DPRK relations. Jang’s stated guilt of “selling the country's resources at cheap prices” also indicates Kim’s dissatisfaction with North Korea’s trade relations with China, which Jang helped to oversee. Still, it is unrealistic to believe that the execution of Jang can lead to a dramatic change in China’s policy approaching North Korea. But the incident will make the relations more fragile in the short run and long run. 

In the short run, the purge of experienced officials increases the difficulty of crisis management. The lack of experience and the need to show loyalty can reduce flexibility of the China relations operators within North Koera, leading to lack of communication, miscalculation and failure in coordination. Should there be another nuclear test or incident like the shelling of Yeonpeyong Island, North Korea should expect China to take a tougher stance.

In the long run, the fall of Jang, widely believed to be a reformer, falls into the ongoing debate in China about its interests in defending North Korea. Beijing’s prolonged goal of persuading Pyongyang to adopt a China-styled socialist market economy is failing. On the contrary, Kim Jong-Un is attempting to gain more independence, both on security and economic levels, from its “elder brother”. With Kim Jong-Un continues to make new troubles for China, Beijing will need to reconsider its strategy on the Korean Peninsula, and search for a more balanced stance between the North and the South. 

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