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Kim Jong-Il's Surprise Return to China

The crazy nephew is back.

8:50 AM, Sep 2, 2010 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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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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