2012-08-15 — China has struck deals with North Korea this week to develop economic zones and foster investment in the impoverished country. The moves, analysts say, signals Beijing’s full support of fledgling North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
The promises boost the viability of Kim, who is in his late twenties, but also rekindle fears that Beijing is turning the North into a satellite state ― setting up a challenge for the next South Korean president.
On Tuesday, the China’s commerce ministry said it would “steadily push” the development of two economic zones in the North near their border and encourage investment from major firms. This came during a trip to Beijing by Jang Song-thaek, the powerful uncle of Kim. Jang, a technocrat, is seen as a key figure driving reform.
The moves fall in line with China’s stance that Pyongyang should follow its reform path. Beijing believes economic cooperation decreases chances for instability in the North, a prospect that troubles Chinese leaders.
That message was largely shirked by late ruler Kim Jong-il ― Kim Jong-un’s father ― who maintained a staunch “military-first” posture.
Kim Jong-un, who has stressed economic development, recently sacked his military chief ― paving the way for party bureaucrats to slowly open the economy. During Jang’s visit, Chinese officials reportedly tied provision of massive aid to assurances the money would not be diverted to the military.
“Beijing is sending a message to military generals: We are backing Kim Jong-un,” said Bong Young-shik, senior researcher with the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. “It is saying that enhancement of living conditions is the best way to ensure the core priorities of North Korean leadership, including regime survival and national security.”
China’s new province?
Cooperation is already well underway in the form of investment and infrastructure projects. Bilateral trade has jumped 28 percent already this year.
The long-term concern, some say, is that Pyongyang may become too dependent and effectively become a fourth province of China’s northeast region known as Manchuria. The impoverished country is rich in minerals and offers cheaper labor.