- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The former top diplomat who oversaw the Obama administration’s self-described “pivot to Asia” says recent moves by North Korea’s young dictator Kim Jong-un have triggered unease in China, which has long served as North Korea’s main ally in the region.

“There are indications that China has grown steadily more concerned by the brutal goings-on in Pyongyang and the provocations staged against its neighbors,” said Kurt M. Campbell, who served as the administration’s assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs throughout most of Mr. Obama’s first term in office.

The “anxiety levels have crept up perceptively along Beijing’s corridors of power” in the wake of the Kim government’s very public and brutal execution last week of North Korea’s powerful No. 2, Jang Song Thaek, Mr. Campbell wrote in a op-ed published in Tuesday’s print edition of the Financial Times.

Jang was seen in China and in the South Korean security establishment as a kind of human bellwether for North Korea’s trajectory,” Mr. Campbell explained. “How he went would tell us how the country goes. He had long been viewed as the most experienced, cosmopolitan member of the elite — and the one best positioned to perhaps help embark the cloistered country on a path towards gradual opening and reform.”

That Mr. Jang was also Mr. Kim’s uncle seemed only to fuel the reasoning behind his elimination last Friday, a development that has fueled deep speculation in the Western media about potential tumult unfolding within North Korea’s secretive dictatorship.

Within hours of Mr. Jang’s execution, North Korea’s official KCNA news agency reported obliquely that “the accused Jang brought together undesirable forces and formed a faction as the boss of a modern day factional group for a long time and thus committed such hideous crime as attempting to overthrow the state,” Reuters said.

Mr. Campell wrote Tuesday that the execution might be explained by a host of different factors, including, possibly, the 30-year-old Mr. Kim’s “plan to consolidate his unrivaled power; as retaliation for fomenting a military coup against the boy leader; or as punishment for simply ‘not clapping with sufficient enthusiasm’ (as mentioned in the litany of charges against him).”

“The problem with closed, totalitarian states is that we cannot truly know why things happen,” Mr. Campbell wrote.

Either way, he wrote, “Jang’s elimination will only add to the worry” in Beijing about developments in North Korea during recent years.

“The repeated nuclear tests, the sinking of a South Korean warship, the shelling of disputed island territories, and repeated missile tests and military exercises have dialed up tensions in China’s immediate neighborhood,” he wrote. “They have served as the driving force behind defense modernization and military deployments for the U.S. and its friends — certainly not in a rising-China’s best interests.”

Mr. Campbell claims, however, that “There have been many reasons posited for China’s reluctance to entertain regime change” in North Korea, not least of which is a desire in Beijing to “maintain a kind of buffer state” on China’s periphery.

“There is also, in all likelihood, a kind of recognition and form of empathy in Beijing for the bizarre machinations and public trials of Pyongyang,” he added. “Strip away the hereditary power transitions and unique qualities of juche (a North Korean concept of self-reliance verging on deprivation), and North Korea most resembles Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China going through the horrors of the cultural revolution.”