North Korean businessmen in China tied to the recently executed Jang Sung-taek have been summoned back home en mass on Dec. 14 in an apparent follow through purge in the aftermath of the execution of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s uncle on Dec. 12. These businessmen worked in China to facilitate trade with and investment by China in North Korea; as well as implement Chinese style economic reforms in the hermit state.
According to North Korean state media, Jang was a ‘traitor, worse than a dog’ who plotted to overthrow the North Korean regime from within. Jang was Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission which effectively made him the second most powerful man in North Korea.
What precisely enraged Jang’s nephew is not known however, a good clue may be in both North Korean and Chinese reactions since Jang’s execution with China warning that economic isolation of its neighbor is in the offing, which preceded the recall of the businessman back to North Korea by Kim Jong-un.
Between the initial arrest and execution of Jang, China moved military and border security assets in the direction of North Korea with a major military exercise recently taking place on the Chinese-North Korean border. North Korea has been moving military forces to the western portion of the nation which was first interpreted as a possible move against South Korea following Jang’s execution.
Such moves by China are not entirely new. They’ve taken place on prior occasions when North Korea conducted test launches of its ballistic missile program and when it tested a nuclear device. This most recent Chinese deployment was conducted under the pretense of a winter war exercise.
Mainstream media as well as political and military experts often default to viewing the situation vis-à-vis China and North Korean through the prism of the Cold War and Chinese participation in combat with U.S. and allied forces during the 1950-53 Korean War. The Cold War is over and China no longer makes decisions with an eye to spreading socialism around the globe via the workers and peasants’ revolution. China’s driving motivation today is regional imperialism.
China has endeavored as much as possible to transform neighboring nations on its borders into economic vassal states of Beijing though not to conquer them, but to control them politically and militarily in order to keep them out of the orbit of American foreign policy and/or the up and rising regional powers of Japan and India. An endeavor that has borne fruit to China’s southwest with India essentially hemmed in on all sides by nations aligned with Beijing.
China has been far less successful with Vietnam, with whom it has long had a ‘love-hate’ relationship stemming from being allies during the Vietnam War, Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia to overthrow Chinese ally Pol Pot following the mass murder of millions of Cambodians; and Hanoi’s alignment with the former Soviet Union after the Sino-Soviet Split.
Taiwan has been a well cloaked success for China. With cross straits investments between both sibling nations, cross cultural exchanges, an increasing number of marriages between islanders and mainland Chinese, Taiwanese businesses and land owners prospering in the mainland. It's been so psychologically successful on Taiwanese that recruitment for the military is down almost 70%.
The Korean Peninsula however is a far trickier situation for China. South Korea is of course not an option for Beijing to draw into its orbit since it is an ally of United States which also has a military footprint there.
On the surface, one might think Beijing should have found it easy to woo North Korea’s communist dictatorship since China itself remains a communist dictatorship and since North Korea is becoming increasingly desperate to even survive as it suffers massive economic floundering and hunger.
China however has found it difficult to reign in North Korea. Kim Jong-un realizes that Beijing seeks to make North Korea a vassal state and that Beijing would insist the Korean peninsula remain peaceful and quiet; with no acts that would compel South Korea and the United States to respond with serious military action or draw those nations troops closer to the Chinese border.
This is the root of the growing rift between the two nations because the ‘Kim Dynasty’ since the end of Korean War has used South Korea and the United States as the mortal outside threat to maintain the population quelled under the boot of military dictatorship. Such an outside ‘threat’ from time to time requires saber rattling by regimes that employ it as political tool. Hence the numerous cross border artillery strikes, attacks at sea, and commando raids into South Korea over the many years since the 1953 Ceasefire.
Beijing has indicated on several occasions that a unified peaceful and prosperous Korea governed by Seoul is much more to its liking than the current situation since it would also likely mean the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Korea after such a reunification. A unified Korea ruled from Pyongyang is no longer an option in any case and would bring on the last thing China wants; a reopening of the Korean War and likely a permanent American military presence on China’s doorstep after it was over.
Korea is an important issue for China for the above reasons and also because in any conflict that may develop between China and Russia, Beijing does not want an insecure or hostile situation on its southern flank in Manchuria as it does battle to the north and east with Russia. Beijing already has enough headaches with first India and now Japan being courted by Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin into what is becoming an anti-China alliance in all but name.