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China Sends A Nastygram To The Boy General
by James Dunnigan
May 5, 2013

North Korea is again running one of its big extortion campaigns against the rest of the world. This is the biggest and boldest yet, with threats of nuclear weapon armed missiles being fired at Japan and other enemies. All this media theater has more impact the farther you get from North Korea. In the two Koreas it is pretty much business as usual. The planting season has begun in the north and that has ended the token military mobilizations (used as a media event to scare the foreigners). Most troops are now doing what they normally do this time of year, help with growing food. North Korea desperately needs this food, especially since reforms (incentives for farmers) in the last year appear to have worked and increased production a bit. That’s remarkable considering the growing fuel, fertilizer, and other shortages farmers have to deal with. The weather has been bad in many parts of the country for the last two years and there has been a noticeable increase in starvation related deaths and illness. Scaring foreigners does not help much if you are very hungry.

The implicit message in all the North Korean threats is that if someone offers some free food and fuel the aggressive messages would disappear. No one has stepped up and China has apparently quietly threatened cuts in aid if North Korea doesn’t quiet down. As these campaigns go, they usually end abruptly with the northerners declaring some kind of victory and that’s it. While it would be nice if all this theater produced some free stuff from fearful foreigners, Kim Jong Un could win inside North Korea without getting a payoff from the foreigners because he has shown his henchmen that the new boss can work the foreign media even more adroitly than daddy or grandpa.

China is angry at all this North Korean theater. The current barrage of threats from North Korea is upsetting Chinese trading partners and is bad for business. North Korean actions have caused a massive amount of international media speculation and FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt). While this is not much of a problem for China, which strictly controls its own media, it forces politicians in nations with a free press to respond to their anxious voters. This can lead to decisions that are not favorable for China. The most unfavorable such decision would be for Japan and South Korea to develop nuclear weapons. Both could do so quickly and would complicate Chinese foreign policy. Currently, Chinese diplomacy is backed up by the fact that China has nukes and that limits how far other nations can go in threatening China. That works both ways, and China tries to maintain reasonably good relations with South Korea and Japan because both nations are trading partners and tension and threats are bad for business. China may be a communist police state but the leadership remains in power only because they keep the economy growing. The neighbors know this and have not felt compelled to go through the political, economic, and diplomatic hassle of building their own nuclear weapons capability. But the current hysteria could force Japan and South Korea to go nuclear. China would lose a diplomatic edge and there would be an increase in the risk of someone actually using nukes.

China does not like to publicly criticize an ally and has been low-key in its public comments to North Korea over the current unpleasantness. But China has other ways to send a nastygram to the Boy General (one of the official nicknames for Kim Jong Un). China has ordered its Internet media operatives to say what they think about the Boy General. As a result, popular Chinese Internet personalities are saying what the government prefers not to say (that Kim Jong Un is a fat little dork, asshole, maniac, or whatever). Chinese Internet commentators are often local celebrities who are allowed to spout on their website or microblog (the tightly controlled Chinese version of Twitter) as long as they do not say anything the government censors do not approve of. The Chinese people understand how this works and know which blog posts are crap and which are sincere. The jabs at the Boy General are largely sincere, with the posters saying what a lot of Chinese think about North Korea.

Yet China is unwilling, or unable, to actually replace Kim Jong Un. Since the Cold War (and Russian subsidies that kept the economy afloat) ended in 1991, China has picked up some of the slack. China has become unhappy with the incompetent leadership in North Korea, as the Kim dynasty refuses to undergo the kind of economic reform that has kept the Chinese Communists comfortably in power. Staging a coup in North Korea has always been a possibility but the paranoid (for good reason in this case) North Korea leadership has made it difficult for China to recruit enough North Korean officials to make this feasible. That said, the potential is still there and China could still go this route.

Many North Koreans believe that the Chinese will take over if it appears that the North Korean government is about to fall apart. The Chinese plan to install pro-Chinese North Koreans as head of a new "North Korean" government and institute the kind of economic reforms they have been urging North Korea to undertake for over a decade. The Chinese do not want North Korea to merge with South Korea, nor do they want North Korea to collapse (and send millions of starving refugees into northern China). China and South Korea both want North Korea to stay independent and harmless. Thus, China is willing to unofficially annex North Korea, knowing that the South Koreans would go along with this as long as the fiction of North Korean independence was maintained. South Korea won't admit this but most South Koreans know that absorbing North Korea would put a big dent in South Korean living standards. That is more unpopular than any other outcome. While all Koreans would like a united Korea, far fewer are willing to pay the price.



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