Reading Between the Lines of Kim's Secret China Trip

      August 31, 2010 10:43

      Just before Beijing officially confirmed Monday the open secret that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and Chinese President Hu Jintao met over the weekend, China's state-run Xinhua news agency carried a quirky response from Chinese authorities about whether Kim's son and heir apparent Jong-un accompanied his father, saying the younger Kim was "not on the guest list."

      The diplomatic community in Beijing interpreted the response two different ways. The first was that China and North Korea agreed not to mention the name of Kim's heir according to practices observed in both countries. The other is that Jong-un really did not accompany his father.

      But the overall consensus is that China has given tacit consent to the hereditary transfer of power with the latest visit. In its coverage of the summit, the North's official Korean Central News Agency reported that Kim told Chinese officials who welcomed him on Friday that it was their "historical mission to hand over the baton of the traditional friendship of the two countries to the next generation smoothly." That comment was not included in the Xinhua article.

      Whenever North Korea has wanted to stress the necessity of dynastic leadership succession, it has cited the need to pass down its strong ties with China to future generations.

      North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (center left) talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao (opposite) at a building in Changchun, Jilin Province in China on Friday, in this screen grab from China's CCTV channel. /CCTV

      The remark that Kim Jong-un was "not on the guest list" -- rather than that he was not there -- is therefore being interpreted by a majority of North Korea watchers as an indirect acknowledgment of his role. It could merely mean that Jong-un was not on the official roster of North Korean officials but may have been part of the unofficial entourage.

      Diplomatic sources in Beijing point out that Jong-un does not have an official title yet either in the Workers' Party or in government.

      And judging by the intense secrecy surrounding Kim's visit, both China and North Korea may have agreed not to reveal whether Jong-un was in China or not. Xinhua and KCNA reported Kim's visit once it was over but did not mention Jong-un, which is how both sides have handled the issue of leadership succession before.

      In December 1989, Deng Xiaoping introduced his successor Jiang Zemin to then North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, who visited Beijing four days before Jiang was catapulted to the top spot at China's military commission. This fact was revealed only many years later. And Kim Jong-il is believed to have followed this precedent before he formally appoints Jong-un to a key government position during a party leadership meeting in September. One Chinese diplomatic expert said, "China has always resorted to ambiguous diplomatic styles of speech about sensitive issues. The latest case was probably an example of that."

      But there is also the possibility that Kim Jong-un stayed in North Korea. Proponents of this view say that he needs to stay to be protected from threats on an overseas trip or to avoid a coup locking both Kims out of their country. The North Korean leader is paranoid about attempts on his life.

      But even in that case, diplomats in China say there is little chance that Beijing disapproved of Jong-un's succession. Of particular interest, in addition to Kim Jong-il's comments on the need to "hand over the baton of the traditional friendship of the two countries to the next generation," was that Hu offered good wishes for the success of the party congress, because that is when Kim Jong-un is widely expected to be given a senior post.

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