According to a high level North Korean source on May 25th, "One of the key goals of the recent trip made by Kim Jong-il to China was to secure support for the succession of Kim Jong-un and to influence the Chinese to maintain their pro-North Korea policy."
"By making his third trip to China in a year," commented the source, "Kim Jong-il was making it clear to the world that North Korea sees China as its most trustworthy ally. At the same time the trip indicates that North Korea's domestic situation is that pressing." So what exactly is so pressing for North Korea?
To ascertain this, one first has to answer the question of why Kim Jong-il went out of his way to visit the hometown of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, rather than going straight to Beijing and meet current Chinese President Hu Jintao. He had to travel 3,000km, spending 3 days and 2 nights on his special train in order to meet Jiang. Why did he go to all the trouble?
"It was," instructed the source, "in order to exert influence through Jiang Zemin on the next Chinese President Xi Jinping to continue with a policy of unconditional support for North Korea throughout his term of office, which begins in 2013."
Sources say that the higher echelons of the Chinese ruling elite is split into two factions with the upcoming administration. The 'Shanghai Group' wields military and political power. The 'Party Next Generation Group' carries economic clout.
Jiang Zemin is the current central figure of the Shanghai Group, and Xi Jinping is his candidate for the leadership. Xi Jinping, born into the Communist Party elite and a chemistry graduate of Tsinghua University, has been one of the key aides of Jiang. The 'Party Next Generation Group' centers around Hu Jintao, and his successor is his close ally Li Keqiang. Li graduated in law from Beijing University, and with a Ph.D. in economics grew close to Hu in his role as a financial expert.
As leaders of the two predominant factions in China's administration to be formed in 2012, what will be the basis of North Korea policy for the so-called Shanghai and Party Next Generation groups?
The Shanghai group is of the opinion that conditional support should be offered to North Korea in order to maintain China's greatest interest, which is stability and the balance of power on the Korean peninsula. The Party Next Generation group is of the view that unconditional support must be provided to North Korea to ensure its upkeep as a useful tool in restraining the other great regional powers, the US and Japan.
The foundations of each side's economic influence are different, too.
The Shanghai group's wealth is based on the large private enterprises that have amassed their wealth through traditional routes of large scale manufacturing and trade, in Wenzhou and Guangzhou regions, south of Shanghai. The Party Next Generation group's wealth is based on the Beijing and Shenzhen regions' public and state led private enterprises. They have a large say in China's political and economic policy decision making process.
"The North Korean regime," said the source, "is acutely sensitive to the effect that the various Chinese economic forces in union with its political establishment have on their growth and development. But the problem is that there is conflict between these forces."
According to the source, North Korea requires the support of the Shanghai group more than it does the Party Next Generation group. A complicating issue for the North is that the traditional industries based Shanghai group and the hi-tech industry centered Party Next Generation group have a competitive relationship with regards to China's Korean peninsula policy.
Through the prism of its more capitalistic viewpoint, the Shanghai group is on better terms with South Korea than North Korea. On the other hand, the Party Next Generation faction has an ideological preference for North Korea over South Korea because its geopolitical outlook has been shaped more by socialism. However, in the current situation the Shanghai group’s investment in the North is in reality more feasible and therefore acquiring their financial investment a more pressing matter.
For over a year, North Korean economic federations have been conducting underwater operations in order to attract the support of investors in the Wenzhou region to its Hwangkumpyeong development. Under Hu Jintao, unconditional support for the work was smoothly forthcoming. But when the Shanghai group takes the reins of core political decision making power in the next term of administration, North Korea is anxious as to the terms of its North Korea policy. For this reason, Kim Jong-il has been proactively seeking assurances.
The source explains why the North Korean leader himself has been doing this instead of his son and heir Kim Jong-un. "Such a major issue is not something that can be attended to by Kim Jong-un. As successor to the North Korean leadership, Kim Jong-un has not yet demonstrated to China that he has the temperament and capabilities necessary to contend with economic and food provision issues. He is passing through a phase of being a "probationary successor"."
The significance of this is that it shows that should Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping become the respective leaders of North Korea and China, there is a possibility that Xi could follow international trends and prioritize his relationship with the South rather than retain the status quo of unconditional support for the North.
"It was to prevent this," said the source, "that Kim Jong-il met Jiang Zemin. He sought, through the agency of a former Chinese leader who had long and close relations with Kim Il-sung, to have changed Xi Jinping's view that support for North Korea should be on a conditional basis. Perhaps Kim Jong-il raised the possibility of some large scale gesture as a carrot to entice Jiang to persuade Xi Jinping to maintain the current administration's unconditional support." This "Big Deal" will be illustrated by the path to be undertaken by China and North Korea during the next Chinese administration.
"In analyzing China-North Korea relations from now on," finished the source, "the time has arrived to see them in economic terms more than political terms. Kim Jong-il's most recent visit to China is an illustrative case in point."
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