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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

China Update: from Words to Deeds

by | February 7th, 2012 | 06:59 am

In an earlier post, we spotlighted a dossier pulled together by Adam Cathcart that details the early Chinese responses to Kim Jong Il’s death and what we called “doubling down” on Kim Jong Un. From words to deeds, as the North Koreans like to say. There is now some information leaking out that the Chinese have provided a substantial aid package to the new leader.

Rumors had been circulating in the Korean press for a week or so before Tokyo Shimbun broke the story of the aid deal, citing unnamed sources in Seoul. According to the Japanese paper, China decided to donate 500,000 tons of food and 250,000 tons of crude oil in a meeting chaired by Hu Jintao himself only days after Kim Jong Il’s death. The actual delivery of the food was reported by AFP based on intelligence gathered in Tumen by the Seoul-based Citizens’ Coalition for Human Rights of Abductees and North Korean Refugees. According to a spokesman of the group, the deliveries lasted about 10 days before the Lunar New Year (January 23).

We were struck by the speed and level of support with which Chinese responded. We have been skeptical of the assumption that the Chinese have consistently bailed out the North Koreans; if they had, we would not have the credible evidence we do of shortages and malnutrition over the last year. But 500,000 tons is not trivial; a graphic put together by Emily Alpert at the LA Times blog suggests the effect of the contemplated US aid shipment of only half that amount. Of course the aid package could have been under discussion prior to Kim Jong Il’s death. Maybe the Chinese had finally come to the conclusion that the humanitarian issues really did warrant attention. But the timing obviously casts doubt on that interpretation.

Chinese aid is not the only good news for the new leadership. The improvement in the fall harvest over last year and sharply-increasing China-DPRK trade—including food and fertilizer imports–are allowing the regime to increase rations through the Public Distribution System.  Yonhap reports that the PDS is being revived, with rations now close to their April 2011 high of 400 grams a month. The political implications are pretty clear: the new leader is not only more charismatic than anyone thought he would be but magnanimous as well.

But the good news could also influence the aid debate in the US and South Korea. South Korean hawks have long argued that “things are not that bad.”  My colleague Marc Noland has weighed in on the issue; Karin Lee offers up a perspective from KEI and Mort Abromawitz has a contribution at The National Interest. Improved circumstances are always welcome, but not if they breed complacency about the chronic food, nutrition and health problems North Korean continues to face.

A second story—also broken by the Japanese and summarized by Dong-a Ilbo—provides further insight into Chinese thinking about the Korean peninsula.   The Asahi Shimbun story got attention in North Korean circles because of the quote from a “Chinese military source” saying the PLA could reach Pyongyang in two hours. These contingency plans were apparently developed by the Academy of Military Science—the main PLA think tank—after 2007 as Kim Jong Il’s health began to deteriorate. The story also dropped hints of conflicts between the two countries. For example, China refuses to conduct combined military exercises with North Korea or to sell it the state-of-the-art J-10 fighter.

But the real point of the story is not that the Chinese have contingency plans—of course they do—nor that they have hedged against a variety of possible risks, including the succession and loose nukes (according to the story, “the first goal [of any intervention] is to swiftly prevent nuclear proliferation should the situation in the North become fluid.”) The point of the story is that intervention would be aimed not only at instability in North Korea but at opportunism on the part of outsiders. This theme runs through the Cathcart dossier as well. The PLA document apparently defined the Korean Peninsula as an area inseparable from China’s national security because of the “buffer zone” theory held by Chinese conservatives: that North Korea is useful to China because it keeps American troops at arms’ length. Chinese analysts have paid particular attention to South Korean contingency planning, and to reports of planned operations in which US and South Korean forces would cross the border in order to assume administration of the country (the so-called “Chungmu” plans) .

It should be noted that the Chinese embrace is being met with at least some resistance from Pyongyang. As we noted yesterday, Kim Jong Un has explicitly been associated with the ban on the use of the yuan in the markets. The motives are similar to those of the currency conversion, but with the added motive of cutting off domestic financial connections to defectors and NGOs in China.