China Ink

A new neighbour from hell

Kim Jong Il’s death provoked headlines in China and across the globe. How did they differ?

The reaction to the news?

CCTV, the state broadcaster, waded in with an effusive encomium: “Comrade Kim Jong Il was the great leader of the DPRK [North Korea] and Workers’ Party of Korea, who has dedicated his whole life to the Korean people and the great cause of building a strong socialist North Korean state, and thus established immortal historical merits. The Chinese Communist Party, the government and the Chinese people are deeply saddened by the death of Kim Jong Il, and the Chinese people will always remember him.” On the China.org website Shen Dingli, a top professor at Fudan University, conceded Kim had faults but was “one of the greatest tacticians of our time.” Any more? “Kim Jong Il was not only a politician, but also a great artist,” the People’s Daily added.

Far less flattering remarks from The Economist: “To his many victims, and to anyone with a sense of justice, it is deeply wrong that Kim Jong Il died at liberty and of natural causes. The despot ran his country as a gulag. He spread more misery and poverty than any dictator in modern times, killing more of his countrymen in the camps or through malnutrition and famine than anyone since Pol Pot.”

The BBC wrote that Kim Jong Il was one of the “world’s most reclusive and enigmatic leaders” but that, thanks to his pursuit of nuclear weapons, he had turned North Korea into a “pariah state”.

ill China support his
son Kim Jong Un
Will China support his son Kim Jong Un?

The indications are yes. The Chinese language edition of the Global Times referred to Kim Jong Un as the “Great Successor” and said that China would continue to be North Korea’s “powerful backer”.

CCTV added: “We believe the North Korean people under the leadership of Comrade Kim Jong Un will turn grief into strength so as to build a socialist powerful country and continue to move forward to achieve the lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

The New York Times predicted China might “effectively adopt” North Korea – making it akin to its “newest province”– because of “a bias among China’s leadership to support the status quo”.

But most foreign media thought that China would offer support only because it had little choice, because it values North Korea as a military buffer zone, and because the Chinese leadership fears the disruptive impact of a failed state. Like his father, the younger Kim will depend economically on his northern neighbour for survival in the face of international isolation, reported the Guardian.

Time for economic reforms?

“North Korea’s… economy is in a very fragile state,” the Beijing News wrote. It called on the international community to “expand its aid to North Korea in the fields of economy, technology, and development plans.”

Would that lead to reforms? “What people are certain about is that there will be a change, but it’s hard to judge how the reform will be achieved and which direction it will take,” was the Delphic verdict of the Beijing News.

TIME magazine offered a more strident opinion: “If ever China needed to play the role of grown-up in its relations with North Korea, the time is now. What would that mean? Telling Kim Jong Un and the decisionmakers behind him that the only way forward is economic reform on the Chinese model – and that failure to pursue that path aggressively would result in a cut-off of trade and energy assistance.”


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