Chinese President Xi Jinping must have felt pretty pleased with himself earlier this year, after he dispatched rival and former Politburo member Bo Xilai in a dramatic, humiliating show trial. When it comes to staging purges, though, North Korea’s brash young leader Kim Jong Un has him beat.
Kim didn’t just arrest his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, the second-most powerful man in the country. The boy-dictator appears to have had Jang brought out of seclusion in order to arrest him again at a televised leadership meeting, then tried and executed on the grounds of being “an anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional element and despicable political careerist and trickster,” according to the judgment of a secret military tribunal. No doubt.
Jang’s fall may have sent an equally loud message to Xi in Beijing. Until recently, Jang had been the North Korean official most closely linked to China — a mature diplomatic go-between, and the man responsible for forging deals with Chinese mining and other companies looking to exploit North Korea’s natural resources and cheap labor. By eliminating his uncle, young Kim seemed to be warning Xi and the Beijing leadership not to presume to work through anyone but him. The fate of North Korea’s special economic zones and other Chinese-style economic innovations now hangs in doubt.
Optimists might hope that the purge will finally convince China of its ally’s unreliability. In fact, though Beijing’s tolerance for Kim’s provocations has been tested, it has never snapped. China still values regime stability over all else: The last thing Beijing wants to see is a reunified Korean Peninsula, governed from Seoul, and allied to the U.S. Jang’s downfall doesn’t change that calculus.
The purge could well end up pushing China and its errant vassal closer together. After Jang’s execution, Japan’s hawkish Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera warned, “North Korea might become a more radical place in the future.” Next Tuesday the Japanese government is expected to approve a more assertive defense policy, one that is justified by the North’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs but that clearly has China in mind as well.
The U.S., too, has cited the North Korean threat to justify stationing ballistic missle defense systems on Guam next year. And this week Japan and South Korea — whose relations have soured recently over questions about Japan’s attitude toward its war record — went ahead with a previously scheduled, joint naval exercise in the East China Sea.
Xi and others in China may also not be as perturbed by Jang’s ouster as some commentators seem to think. The late No. 2’s influence had been declining for almost a year; in May 2013, Kim dispatched a Jang rival as a special envoy to Beijing. It’s also not clear that the purge will necessarily derail some of the economic reforms Jang had championed. On Monday, the day after his public humiliation, the North signed a contract to develop yet another special economic zone along the Chinese border.
Jang’s purge, though, is hardly reassuring to China. Among other things, the Politburo charged Jang with “throwing the state financial management system into confusion and committing such acts of treachery as selling off precious resources of the country at cheap prices” — in other words, cutting deals that were too generous to the Chinese.
No doubt the youngest Kim had many reasons for ousting his uncle — not least, to send a message to an older generation of North Korean officials not to dare challenge the Dear Leader’s authority. To Xi and China, the message seems to be slightly different: it’s time to pay up.