Fifth, regime instability in the North means China is losing the ability to influence Pyongyang. At the end of February, the Korean Central News Agency carried Kim Jong-un’s comments on factional infighting. The regime, beginning with the purge of Jang Song Thaek, has publicly admitted to internal discord, something it has not done since the days of Kim Il-sung. The Kim family has built its power on the notion it has the love, support, and devotion of all the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, so talking about severe disagreements means the divisions among elite elements must be serious.
“The most easily discernible sign of weakness in the power structure, or an inability to fully control a government, is purges—and in North Korea there have been plenty of them,” writes noted Korea watcher Bruce Bechtol, in his new book, North Korea and Regional Security in the Kim Jong-un Era. If young Kim’s serial purges do not work—and the fact that there have been so many of them indicates that they’re not—the North is in for years of instability. As long as this instability continues, China will, like everyone else, be looking in from the outside.
Not everyone agrees that the Chinese are on the outs in the North Korean capital. In fact, it appears that the majority view is that Beijing is now more powerful than before. Yet recent developments suggest that the dominant narrative is wrong. In late March, for example, the Chosun Ilbo, the Seoul newspaper, reported that Kim Jong-un in 2013 had ordered the hanging of signs bearing a quote from his grandfather, that China is a “turncoat and our enemy.”
It is not clear what caused the Kimster to order the posting of the signs, but over the long term, China poses a fundamental challenge to the regime. The People’s Republic represents modernity and progress, and modernity and progress are critical threats to Kim’s state, which can survive only in a closed environment. Kim rulers know they cannot follow China’s path, which makes Beijing’s constant hectoring about economic reform inherently threatening.
And perhaps that is the ultimate reason why, when the current Kim ruler is so insecure, China is losing even more influence in North Korea.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China and Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang (http://twitter.com/GordonGChang).
Image: Flickr/Roman Harak/CC by-sa 2.0