Are officials from the Peoples Republic of China playing kingmaker inside North Korea? It is an intriguing speculation. From an historical viewpoint Chinese meddling on the peninsula dates back millennia. Chinese leaders, almost pathological about outside threats, saw the Korean peninsula as a one-way highway, an inviting pathway for invaders from Japan to threaten Manchuria and hence China. Nor was this an unrealistic concern. Sometimes, as they say, even paranoid people are watched. In living history we saw Korea used as a pawn in the Cold War and fought over in a hot war that cost the Chinese more than 100,000 killed including the son of Mao Tse-tung who led an infantry company against American forces. To this day representatives from the "Chinese Peoples Volunteers" sit beside their erstwhile North Korean allies, across from UN and South Korean representatives at meetings of the Military Armistice Commission in Panmunjom.
Chinese leaders believe, with ample justification, that they have purchased their place of seniority at the Korean policy table with huge expenditures of blood and resources. Since 1953, North Korea has been an expensive dependent. Post-Korean War, China competed vigorously with the Soviet Union for influence in Kim Il Sung's workers paradise. Kim, a virtuoso at playing the Soviets and Chinese against each other, was able to keep the bidding going so each lavished resources on North Korea. He was able to maintain the façade of an independent economic capability despite the fact that the oppressive communist regime strangled economic development and was unable to support itself. But once the USSR collapsed, China found itself the only player in the auction. As a consequence it became considerably less generous with its aid. North Korea without Chinese assistance teeters on the edge of economic implosion. With such a degree of dependency the PRC expects its guidance to be heeded.
Throughout these years China has been engaged in the kind of internal tug-of-war that shapes its history. It has been struggling over economic development: do the benefits outweigh the risk of adulterating ideological purity? Some of the old Communist Party members think ideology primary. Others, especially the younger, more cosmopolitan up-and-coming class, emphasize development. Youngish President Hu Jin Tao comes down hard for economic prosperity. This puts him at loggerheads with Kim Jong Il who is convinced that he is the last bastion of Marxist-Leninist purity. Kim Il Sung's successor, his erratic son Kim Jong Il, has expressed an idea that displeases Chinese leaders: He sees himself as their equal or, in ideological terms, their better. What is unshakeable is the firm Chinese conviction that vassal states like North Korea must never challenge the authority and preeminence of their Chinese superior. China is the superpower and North Korea is at best a parasite. Clearly Kim's behavior, if designed to win Chinese respect and deference, fails miserably.
Kim Jong Il lacks his father's ability to ride the Chinese tiger comfortably. His behavior, always considered erratic, tests Chinese patience. Statements released by official North Korean sources attributed to Kim have openly contradicted Chinese government pronouncements. Flouting high-visibility diplomatic Chinese efforts to promote the Six Party Talks, Kim made disrespectful public comments disparaging the meetings. He embarrassed the Chinese by his diplomatic boorishness and by openly instructing his representatives to be intransigent, hostile, and uncooperative. Kim's putative independence, tainted by a large measure of arrogance, is considered totally unsuitable by Chinese leaders since it comes from someone utterly dependent on its largess. China at best tolerates and uses North Korea for its own purposes. It is quite willing when the occasion necessitates, to make its Korean subordinates aware of the true, hierarchical nature of the relationship lest the Koreans forget their place.
In Chinese eyes, the younger Kim is disharmonious. He threatens decades of spectacular Chinese growth and ever-increasing prosperity by making needless, potentially destabilizing threats against some of China's largest trading partners: Japan, South Korea and America. His highly publicized intrigues to develop nuclear weapons are moving him inexorably into being a competitor to China. Chinese military officials, speaking off the record several months ago, stated flatly that Kim was approaching a line in nuclear weapons development beyond which they would need to "take action." Kim Jong Il may have crossed that line.
[In early June 2004 the Dear Leader's train crossed a railway intersection just south of the China border. He was returning from a meeting in Peijing in which he acted arrogantly toward the Chinese. Two hours after he passed a huge explosion rocked the area, killing scores. In September a mushroom cloud shot high into the sky not far from the China border in a locale that North Korea reportedly tested solid fuel missiles.] Is it possible that the[se] recent two explosive events (literally) were in fact not-so-subtle messages that were being sent to the Dear Leader to clean up his act? China is capable of initiating such clandestine attacks. In fact both the blowing up of the train and the mysterious explosion at the missile test site could have been accomplished any number of ways: cruise missiles, sabotage, or air strikes would have done the job. Considering the degraded state of the North Korean military, not to mention the fact that its attention is focused primarily at South Korea along the Demilitarized Zone, such an attack would be relatively easy for China to accomplish and difficult for outside observers to detect.
Did Kim Jong Il get the messages linked to those explosions? We don't know, and it may not matter at this stage. Given Chinese proclivity for meddling in a neighbor's internal affairs it ought not to surprise that China may have embarked on a campaign designed to affect regime change. That might account not only for the explosions but also for all those mysteriously disappearing portraits. [Remember all the recent speculation about 'disappearing' protraits of Kim Jong Il, while the Kim Il Sung portraits are still there?] Either way, know that the Chinese are decisively engaged in the North Korean game.