The recent, very public ouster of North Korea’s Jang Song Thaek, the uncle of Kim Jong Un and formerly the country’s No. 2 leader, has been noted with some concern in China, which is more or less Pyongyang’s only friend in the region.
As we wrote last week, there were reports that Jang had been relieved of his post for alleged corruption and that two of his top aides had been executed. An extraordinary photo published by the official KCNA news agency on Monday, showing Jang being unceremoniously escorted from a Communist Party meeting by two armed guards, left no doubt that he had become persona non grata.
Jang was accused in state media of a litany of charges, including womanizing, drug abuse, being “affected by the capitalist lifestyle,” pretending to “uphold the party and leader,” and perhaps, most Orwellian of all, for “dreaming different dreams.”
As significant as such a high-level shakeup might seem inside reclusive North Korea, The New York Times says “nowhere is the downfall more unnerving than in China.”
“Despite Chinese irritation with North Korea’s nuclear tests and other bellicose behavior, China had built a good relationship with Mr. Jang as the trusted adult who would monitor Mr. Kim, who is less than half his age.”
“While there is no indication that the Chinese intend to change their view, it seemed clear that even Beijing’s top leaders were surprised by Mr. Jang’s abrupt downfall.”
“Jang was once seen as a regent to the young dictator [Kim]. He also had strong patronage networks of his own, and within the ultraconservative halls of North Korean power was seen as something of a liberal. He visited Seoul in 2002 and has made several official trips to China, most recently in August 2012.”
He was also reportedly a supporter of Chinese-style economic reforms, according to The Associated Press.
On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said: “We hope North Korea can maintain national stability, the people’s well-being and economic growth. China will remain committed to developing the friendly relationship between China and North Korea.”
India’s The Hindustan Times points out that Beijing’s unease with the changed dynamics at the top of the government in Pyongyang were reflected in an editorial in the state-run nationalist tabloid, the Global Times, on Tuesday.
“As Jang was viewed as the second-most powerful figure and is North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s uncle, this announcement is considered a significant political event,” it said.
Even so, the newspaper acknowledged that the two countries “have long taken different paths” and that their mutual interests were not about ideology.
“A friendly relationship between China and North Korea is not only critical to the North, but also a strategic and diplomatic leverage for China. With China’s rise, its diplomatic leverage will become greater, yet the impact of bilateral relations in the Asia-Pacific region is irreplaceable,” the editorial said.