I broke the news today of Kim Jong Il’s death to several co-workers, hoping for some kind of reaction from them, but all I got was a shrug and a “So what?” The conversation then quickly turned to what this might mean for China, and whether or not more N. Koreans would be sneaking across the border (the N. Korean army actually received orders to seal the border with increased patrols several hours before the news was broken, it will remain sealed until at least Jan. 15).
One co-worker did shake her head, and express concern about the fact that Kim’s son would be taking power, “Dynasties are not a good thing,” she said.
One of the students my wife tutors said that N. Korea was “broken” now, and teachers on her campus asked if she thought that perhaps Kim Jong Il had been killed.
Perhaps I should have realized that my Chinese friends wouldn’t have much of a reaction to the news, given how little is said of the situation in N. Korea through Chinese media outlets. The famines and the construction of massive prison facilities have been kept out of the Chinese press, as has Kim’s strange spending habits. My co-workers had no idea that N. Korean refugees who are forcibly repatriated, are routinely executed, or that the rogue state is responsible for the flow of crystal meth into northeastern China. China’s leaders have never condemned N. Korea’s nuclear programs, or blatant attack on S. Korea (there is some evidence that China has been helping N. Korea export nuclear technology to Iran). After all, N. Korea is still a close friend of China (my earlier post on the subject).
As news outlets throughout the world have rushed to publish obituaries of Kim Jong Il, Chinese media has only repeated the official reports from N. Korean agencies. Global Times’ hastily prepared outline of Kim Jong Il’s life is out of order, and stops around the mid 90’s, but does include his date of birth in accordance with N. Korean propaganda (but omits his most outlandish “accomplishments”). There are also no photos of Kim Jong Il with Chinese leaders, but there are a few with leaders from S. Korea and the US.
I think this has less to do with a lack of journalistic ability on the part of reporters at the Global Times, as it has to do with how news organizations in China respond to breaking news in general – they wait. For the time being, the reporters are unsure to what level they should promote the story. Is it a moment of sorrow for the Chinese people? Should Kim Jong Il’s leadership be praised? It will take some time for an official version to be handed down. So far the Foreign Ministry has only offered “deep condolences,” and I doubt further commentary on his reign will occupy much space in Chinese media.
Which brought me to another interesting realization: If China cannot even discuss the failures of other communist states, how can it possibly admit its own shortcomings? If the possibility of change in N. Korea is off limits for discussion, what does this mean for China’s own political environment?
Recently N. Korea has served as a reminder of how much China has changed in the last few decades; perhaps Kim’s death is an uneasy reminder of the similarities that remain.