Inside China

Kim is dead; long live next of Kim

The death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il touched off an instant media frenzy inside China, a state that proudly proclaimed North Korea to be its closest ideological and geopolitical ally.

Reporting on Mr. Kim’s demise saturated state-run news media, and reactions were swift and overwhelming. China’s Communist Party chief Hu Jintao on Tuesday paid a rare visit to the North Korean Embassy in Beijing to mourn Mr. Kim’s death. That was followed by visits Wednesday of the other eight members of the ruling Standing Committee of the Politburo, the collective dictatorship that runs China.

An official condolence statement was quickly sent to Pyongyang from the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. “We are shocked to learn … Comrade Kim Jong Il passed away,” the statement says. “The Chinese government and people were deeply saddened by the death of Comrade Kim Jong Il, who will be remembered forever by the Chinese people.”

One main theme of media coverage on Mr. Kim’s death was to stress the Beijing-Pyongyang symbiosis of friendship the Chinese government has said is “as close as lips and teeth.”

China and [North Korea] are close neighbors and stand together in good or bad times,” the condolence statement stated. “The Chinese people will stand firmly together with the North Korean people forever!”

On the key issue of leadership succession, the world awaited China’s reaction to Pyongyang’s change at the top. Swiftly and resolutely as communist comrades normally take things, the Central Committee unequivocally endorsed Mr. Kim’s choice of his son, Kim Jong-un, still in his 20s, as the next maximum ruler of North Korea and the commander of Pyongyang’s military and nuclear-weapons arsenal.

The Chinese statement said the Chinese Communist Party believes North Korea “will remain united as one with the leadership of the [communist Workers’ Party of Korea] and under the leadership of Comrade Kim Jong Un, turn their sorrow into strength, continuously advance towards the goal of building a strong and prosperous socialist nation and achieving sustained peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

The Chinese military is also expressing its support following Kim Jong-il’s demise, publishing lengthy articles in military publications that praise the supremacy of all things military in North Korea.

Hours after the news of Mr. Kim’s death was announced, the People’s Liberation Army Daily and the state-run Xinhua News Agency ran a long article on Mr. Kim’s military-first politics.

The report details, with glowing admiration, Mr. Kim’s placement of the military at the very top of his national agenda, including putting troops above workers, peasants and intellectuals in the regimented society; letting military leaders trump civilian authorities; guaranteeing a maximum military budget; and using military’s loyalty and devotion as a motivational force to enhance social cohesion.

On Tuesday, the PLA Daily also published detailed accounts of the massive arms stockpile under Mr. Kim, paying special praise for Pyongyang’s advances in guided missiles.

President Obama, meanwhile, placed a call to President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea within a few hours after the news of Mr. Kim’s death to assure the democratic ally of continued U.S. support in the coming weeks of uncertainty.

China’s support for its North Korean ally, however, was demonstrated with far more than a phone call.

Coinciding with Pyongyang’s official mourning period from this past Monday to Dec. 28, the Chinese military dispatched its unarmed but symbolically meaningful aircraft carrier, the Varyag, on its third sea trial to waters just west of the Korean Peninsula.

“This was fairly quick turnaround from the second to the third [sea] trial for this newly refurbished carrier, so one can presume political intent,” said Richard Fisher Jr., a military analyst with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.

Far less subtle was the Chinese government’s decision to air a state-run CCTV television report on the PLA’s Second Artillery Corps and the ICBM stockpile under its command on the same day Mr. Kim’s death was announced.

China bashes air-sea office

With the creation of the air-sea battle office in August, the Pentagon is striving to enhance and integrate air and naval combat capabilities many believed are aimed at China, a nation engaged in a full-scale arms race in Asia to challenge America’s presence in the region.

According to the Pentagon news release, the air-sea battle concept will “counter emerging threats that include conventional ballistic missiles, long-range precision cruise missiles, advanced integrated air and missile defense systems, electronic and cyber warfare capabilities, submarines, surface combatants, and modern combat aircraft.” All these systems are hallmarks of China’s military capabilities and weapons stockpile of late.

China, however, has been attacking the concept.

In addition to boilerplate rebuttals issued by the Chinese Defense Ministry’s spokesman to any U.S. defensive and preventive posturing in the region, leading Chinese military bloggers and defense analysts have issued a constant stream of articles in China’s exuberant military discussion forums.

On Dec. 12, PLA navy Rear Adm. Yang Yi charged in the official Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily that the air-sea battle concept was yet another U.S. conspiracy to use anti-access and anti-area-denial forces as an excuse to scramble for control of the commanding heights in a future military struggle against China. He also said the United States had developed a Cold War-like military alliance in Asia to confront China.

On Dec. 19, Han Xudong, a military scholar at the Chinese Defense University, wrote a People’s Daily article that also appeared in its subsidiary, the Global Times, that accused the air sea battle concept of being a combination of saber-rattling and psychological deterrence against China.

Miles Yu’s column appears Thursdays. He can be reached at mmilesyu@gmail.com.

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