The question everyone here is asking is why—having been to China just this past May—the reclusive Great Leader and dictator of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Kim Jong-Il, would return last week. More than four years had elapsed between his 2006 trip to China and his “unofficial” visit this past spring. So why was he back again after only three months?

Kim is often looked upon by the Chinese as some kind of crazy nephew. As much as they try to support him, spend time and resources and endure the international embarrassment of propping him up, Kim’s behaviour seems to become more—rather than less—erratic.

Occam’s Razor suggests his latest trip is a sign of the growing desperation that the Kim Family Regime is feeling in its efforts to ensure a smooth transition to a new generation of despot. Conditions in the country continue to deteriorate for the great mass of the poor, and there is a growing disparity between these have-nots and those who have been active in the growing number of private trading markets. Added to this discontent is the still palpable anger over a December 2009 remuneration of the North Korean currency, the won, which lopped two zeroes off the banknotes and then restricted the amounts of the old notes that could be exchanged for new ones. A large number of people had their savings wiped out.

Then there is the added agony of natural disasters. Flooding in the border areas with China will disrupt the already dismal prospects for the North’s perennially anaemic harvest, but even more ominous is that massive rains that have submerged much of the city of Sinuiju. This city is the trading gateway on the DPRK side of the border through which most of the ground traffic in goods and other commodities from China pass through.

This combination of unhappiness-breeding events has caused Comrade Kim to take measures that appear to be signs of nervousness on the part of his regime. In mid-July large numbers of North Korean military units were redeployed to the area around the capital city of Pyongyang. These include not only large numbers of men under arms, but mechanized infantry units and assault formations equipped with armoured vehicles.

The original assessment of both South Korean and Japanese intelligence sources was that the troop movements were a typical act by this paranoid state in preparation for a September meeting of senior Communist party delegates. The event--the first in 30 years and only the third of its kind since the DPRK was founded in 1948--is supposed to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party’s. More significantly, there have been consistent rumors that Kim will appoint his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, as his successor at this meeting--just as Kim Jong-Il was named the successor to his father at the previous gathering in 1980.

When reports surfaced last year that the elder Kim was possibly suffering from cancer the assessment of DPRK watchers here in Beijing was that this might prevent the transfer of power to his Kim Jong Un (who is either only 27 or 28, as no one seems to know for sure) as the heir-apparent.

Knowing that there is likely to be institutional resistance to his decision--and perhaps worried that he is running out of time--Kim has now departed from his usual pattern of behaviour.

Outside of starving his population while he lives a lifestyle that even some billionaires would find excessive, there is nothing the North Korean dictator loves more than basking in the glow of visits by dignitaries, especially former American presidents. Kim was grinning from ear to ear in photos taken with a visibly grimacing former President Bill Clinton when the latter visited Pyongyang a year ago.

Clinton’s mission had been to bring out two employees of former Vice President Al Gore’s Current TV media venture, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who had been grabbed by DPRK border guards, tried and sentenced to hard labour for allegedly crossing over the Chinese border into North Korea. The two had been researching a story on the exploitation of North Korean girls who escape to China only to be forced into the sex trade or arranged marriages.

Like other Americans who have been thrown in prison in the DPRK, Ling and Lee were both pardoned by Kim largely in order for him to trade them like baseball cards--in this case for the chance of a photo-op with Clinton. Another such opportunity presented itself last week when former President Jimmy Carter arrived in Pyongyang to bring back in tow another American, Aijalan Mahi Gomes, who had also been pardoned for an illegal border crossing into the North. But Carter had only been in the North Korean capital for a few hours before Kim headed off to China in his luxurious armoured train, leaving the former one-term Democrat cooling his heels.

Before his trip, Carter had been guaranteed a sit-down with Kim, which was the price of the “Get Out of Jail Free” card for Gomes. (It’s hard to tell who wanted the meeting more: Carter, who once brokered a flawed nuclear deal with Kim’s father and fancies himself as the world’s premiere peacemaker and bridge-builder with states that have troubled relations with Washington, or Kim, who wanted another photo with a one-time White House occupant to put on his ego wall.)

Ego and opportunity cost aside, Kim and his son headed off to north-eastern China to visit Manchuria, first stopping in the city of Jilin to make a pilgrimage to Yuwen Middle School, which Kim’s father attended from 1927-30 during the Japanese occupation of Korea. This visit was symbolic on a couple of levels. One is the visit to this shrine to his father was to show that Kim is passing the torch to his son, just as his father passed it to him. Secondly, it was necessary to pay homage to the institution where Kim Il-Sung first became properly introduced to Communist ideology.

Then the pair headed off in a massive convoy of some 20 armoured limousines plus a half a dozen minibuses to the Jilin province capital of Changchun. Once again symbology enters here. Changchun was the seat of power for the Manchu puppet emperor, Pu Yi (dramatized in the 1987 feature film “The Last Emperor”), when the Japanese created the occupied state of Manchuko in the years leading up to and during the Second World War.

Kim here was able to show solidarity with his Chinese comrades, who still resent the invasion and occupation of Manchuria, as Sunday August 29 was the 100th anniversary of the Japanese annexation of Korea or, as one Beijing colleague refers to it, “the DPRK’s Let’s Hate the Japanese Day.” While in Jilin he had also visited Beishan park, where many Chinese who fought against the Imperial Japanese Invaders are now buried.

But the larger item on the agenda was a series of meetings with the Chinese leadership--including President Hu Jintao--inside the five-star Nanhu Hotel in Changchun, which was surround by more security than Fort Knox during these discussions. Kim's purpose was apparently to present his son to the Chinese Communist rulers as the person they would be dealing with once power (again) transfers from father to son.

The other purpose was undoubtedly the panhandling that the DPRK is known for. As nice as it might have been for Kim to grip and grin with another former president, North Korea is in more than the usual dire need of aid from China, its main benefactor. Not just food aid comes from the PRC, but also oil. China has reportedly cut back on these shipments, which the DPRK needs to prop up its decrepit energy infrastructure.

China has little choice but to keep supporting Kim and paying what amounts to a subtle form of blackmail. If the DPRK collapses, China has a massive refugee problem on its hands.

What the Chinese--as well as many North Koreans--are hoping for is that the party conference in September might finally result in some reform of the DPRK’s economy to bring it back from the brink of collapse. However, as long as the crazy nephew in the dark glasses remains in charge, such talk is just that--hope--and the kind that usually pales in the light of experience.

Reuben F. Johnson is a regular contributor.

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