Kim Jong Il is dead – Candid Chinese reactions

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.

25 responses to “Kim Jong Il is dead – Candid Chinese reactions”

  1. C.S. says:

    Is China even communist anymore? Isn’t it really authoritarian? What’s the difference? (My background’s in science, so I really don’t know. Sorry it’s such a basic question.)

    I think the country’s best described as a mixed-state — with the caveat that people try to ignore politics as much as humanly possible. I don’t know what the economic structure at the top actually is. They vaguely resemble the SOEs you see in socialist states like Norway, but they’re not run with democratic oversight, nor are the benefits dispursed to the people like you see in socialist or communist states. I don’t know enough about China to really understand what’s going on here. I get the vague impression that “Chinese characteristics” is a euphemism for “economic authoritarianism.” But maybe I’m misinterpreting things because I’m not an econ person?

    I had a really interesting conversation with a friend about this. I told her I’d only have a kid if I could move to Norway or Finland. When she asked why, I went down the list of benefits and explained that the benefits existed because they’re socialist. (This may not continue to exist because of the Euro crisis, but they’d still be the best places to live if you’re a woman because of the overall culture.) She thought there were only two types of governments in the world — capitalist and communist. She was shocked to learn that there was anything else — let alone dozens of anything elses. I think that, more than anything else, speaks volumes.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      China is nominally communist in that its legitimating ideology is marxism-leninism-mao zedong thought. However, you are not off-base in calling it an authoritarian state. “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” refers to the pursuit of socialism appropriate to the conditions of China. This has to some extent been the line from the beginning, but was elevated to supreme ideology in the early to mid-80s. What is allows for is the spread of capitalism as the most appropriate way to develop productive forces/material circumstances to allow the emergence of a more proper socialism. So, this leaves the legitimating ideology intact, but allows the bureaucratic pursuit of any means necessary to achieve these conditions. It also legitimizes whatever means are necessary to maintain stability. As to the nordic states, it’s a stretch to call them socialist, unless one transfers wholesale the U.S. vernacular on the subject. Better to note that they are states in which “embedded liberalism” ( rules the day.

    • Chopstik says:

      Not to be a jerk (though, I suppose, it could be argued I come by it naturally), but “communist” and “capitalist” governments is a misnomer. Capitalism and communism are economic forms, not governmental structures. “Socialism” would fall under the same determination – in which case, you would then state that Norway and Finland are socialist democracies while China is a capitalist authoritarian state. And Norway (at least) is a relatively successful socialist state so long as the price of oil remains high and they have ready access. While their economy may be more diversified than Saudi Arabia, it is not where it needs to be for fuller development to maintain the lifestyle they have should the price of oil fall dramatically. (Sorry, didn’t mean to take a China blog off-topic.)

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        Like I said, Chopstik, “socialism” only works if you transfer the U.S. vernacular and apply it. If socialism refers to state ownership of the means of production, then economies like Norway are mixed at most. If ownership of the profits of the strategic resources is the measure, then we have socialist regimes in Russia and Saudia Arabia. Suddenly we have no useful distinction at all. If “socialism” refers to the provision of social services, then we have the U.S. sense of the term and all western democracies are nominally socialist.

      • Chopstik says:

        Good point, Lorin. Then how would you refer to the redistribution of wealth in the form of taxation that exists in Norway (and the US, etc)? I’m sure that there is a technical term at the moment that escapes me…

  2. Andrew The says:

    Sic semper tyrannis.

  3. Lorin Yochim says:

    This accusation against North Korea as source of crystal meth in China is a curious one. I explored the “research” that supports this claim and found that these claims seem to be partly from the realm of pure speculation and partly the usual demonization. There is some possible evidence. It seems plausible that it is the medicine of choice in N. Korea itself, but laying NE China’s drug problems at the feet of “the regime” seems like the usual blame the outsider talk.

    As to China paying attention to its own faults, my sense is that, while it does so very much on its own terms, over the past 30 years, China has been the single most navel gazing nation in the world. If it is not, how do we explain the constant urge to reform?

    • imikespock says:


    • Chopstik says:


      While I do not know the sources of some of the claims Tom makes regarding N. Korea as the source of crystal meth into NE China nor even the execution of those forcibly repatriated and would like to see some attribution for such claims, I have to admit that I can believe both would be possible under that regime. It is, after all, the same regime that has freely shared its knowledge of nuclear weapons technology with other nations, happily conducted weapons transfers to pariah nations, forcibly kidnapped citizens from other nations (Japan) and guiltlessly counterfeited US dollars to fund its own bankrupt economy.

      As to China paying attention to its own faults, can you please be more specific to such an assertion? How do you come to such a view? Are you referring to the government (which, to my knowledge, has demonstrated a complete inability and unwillingness to do so) or to its people (who are discouraged from doing so by that same government)? Or perhaps another entity in the country that has become more reflective in the past 30 years? And to which reform are you referring, economic, political, cultural, another? If economic, that was done to enable stable governance. I have seen little true political reform that was not geared toward political stability (or harmony, depending upon your point of view) such as local elections in small villages that have rarely had any significant impact. And any cultural reform would seem unlikely since the Party has spent a great deal of time “revising” history to match its own interpretation – particularly ancient Chinese history. If China were truly paying attention to its own faults, it would address its own history under the Party – something that it has singularly failed to do to any meaningful degree. As I have noted here before, unless and until China and the Party addresses its past, it will be unable to escape it to create a better future. I would hope that you are right and that it is occurring, but I fear that it is not and will not unless there is a change in leadership.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        RE Korea, As you say, the claims don’t seem implausible, although if those I read are true, few suggest that the regime itself is behind the trafficking. If the regime has failed to the extent it seems to have, it wouldn’t be surprising to find all kinds of illegal activity there. Mainly I’m offering a critique of the sources by referring to the nature of the claims I’ve read. They are highly self-referential and refer as much to innuendo as solid research. As I said, from certain sources many of the claims made sound like the usual denial that the source of any social “pollution” could be China itself.

        What I mean in terms of navel gazing and reform is that China today would be full-stop unrecognizable to its 30 years ago self. In any of the aspects you list, there have been many reforms. With respect to the party’s role, that there is still one-party rule does not mean that there has been no change in the way that party operates internally. Having said this, if one wants to make the claim that there has been no substantive change since Mao’s passing, then that is only sustainable in the face of the continued power of the party. In terms of failing to address its own history, I guess what you mean is that it has failed to address its past to the satisfaction of those who would like to see it gone. Fair enough, but as anyone living in China will attest, “crossing the stream groping for stones” means that things have been changing very rapidly, which is not to say they have changed for the better for everyone. So, to those who enjoy accusing me of being “pro-China,” not quilty. I’m more pro evidence than anything.

      • Tom says:

        Hi Lorin, this drug trafficking claim is one that shouldn’t be taken lightly, this podcast from NPR interviewed a N. Korean defector who was connected with their drug trade and counterfeiting operations ( People’s Daily has also run articles from time to time about large drug seizures near the N. Korean border, but what is interesting about these articles is that they only claim a foreign source, but never actually name which country. From my other readings, usually China has no problem saying drugs came from Thailand or other S.E. Asian countries, but N. Korea is a source that would be protected. There have also been a number of reports from US gov’t agencies on the issue as well ( (

        This does not seem to be a case of “blame the other” but seems to be the product of a regime that has lost access to the open market, because of their nuclear projects, and has turned to the global black market to fund themselves.

      • Chopstik says:

        At the risk of being obnoxious, can you please provide evidence of the myriad changes you reference? Oh, and I wasn’t disagreeing with you on the sources; I think we’re both in agreement on that issue.

        >>I guess what you mean is that it has failed to address its past to the satisfaction of those who would like to see it gone.

        No, that is not what I mean. Frankly, nor have I advocated that the Party should be gone. What I have stated is that there should be a true review of the history of the Party’s decisions and actions and that it should summarily be held to account for them – this has not happened. Any reasonably detailed accounts of the Cultural Revolution (the great majority negative) are banned in China and only available outside of the country. There has been no review of the events from the spring of 1989 in China. No review of the Great Leap Forward. No review of Mao’s actions or his being held to account for his role in any of the disasters actions he spawned (his role in the Cultural Revolution was blamed on the Gang of Four to a large degree and the rest hidden). I did reference that there were many economic changes and should have been more clear that those were put forth as a way to get past the excessive destruction of the Cultural Revolution and to help bring China into the modern era – to Deng’s credit. But that does not indicate that China has been reflective or navel gazing – merely that it is trying to rebuild itself. If it were reflective, I wonder if it would stop to compare itself to 1930’s Japan?

        And finally, I want to be very clear. I am not nor have I indicated a preference for the removal of the Party – though I do think it should share power. I have pointed out that the nation (or Party, if you wish) must look at its past in a dispassionate light and recognize the mistakes that it has made and build from there. Unless and until it does, there is little hope that we will see the civil society that everyone hopes for.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        Thanks for the links, Tom.

  4. imikespock says:

    use of crystal meth is rampant throughout asia.

  5. Pelo says:

    Glad you did a post on this. It will be interesting to see how this plays out, and what the Chinese government’s reactions will be going foward. From all indications, Kim Jong Il’s baby-faced, still-wet-behind-the-ears son may be ill-equipped to continue his father’s legacy. I wonder how big a role the North Korean military will play in that regard.

  6. Lorin Yochim says:

    @Chopstik. I’m not going to provide evidence here for a few reasons. 1) because I would think that is off topic in this post; 2) because I don’t think I should have to prove the obvious that China has undergone a massive process of reform, waves of reform, in fact; and 3) because I think what you’re interested in sounds more like truth and reconciliation rather than reform. Such truth and reconciliation as you suggest might be desirable and productive and lead to concrete reforms political reforms of a kind, but its absence doesn’t make all other reforms moot.

    • Chopstik says:

      I would actually be interested in the reforms that you’ve mentioned as I gather that you’re referring to political reform – something I have not seen in evidence. The most that I could argue would be “reform” would be the transition to a more consensual form of governance and that was through necessity rather than introspective reflection. In other words, there is no singular leader who could command through personality or experience such as Mao or Deng and the only way to govern is through a group of like-minded individuals with common interests. But this is not reform, this is simply conforming to a situation. So, yes, I would be very interested in understanding the “reforms” that you have referenced here.

      Perhaps you are correct in that I think truth and reconciliation is needed for China to have a better future – I had not considered that. And I would agree that the absence of it does not necessarily make all other reforms moot. However, the fact that the country as a whole has either rewritten or ignored its history does not bode well and is, in my humble opinion, a serious impediment to future success. It is very difficult for a country to succeed in the future if it does not even know its past and cannot deal with its mistakes. Indeed, it is the Lost Generation that is coming to power now and the fact that an entire generation was so severely scarred by its experiences that it simply hides from or ignores them will very likely blind them to ways to create a better future – or better future generations. Put another way, what is China reforming when it does not even know what its past mistakes were? Indeed, what need is there to reform if there were no mistakes (or known mistakes, anyway)?

      The definition of reform is the improvement or amendment of what is wrong, corrupt, unsatisfactory, etc. The government does not acknowledge that it was or is wrong, corrupt and that its actions have often been unsatisfactory (at best) so exactly what, then, is it reforming?

  7. kingtubby1 says:

    The drug counterfeiting claims are non-controversial.
    Lot of it eminates from Section 39, the department tasked with acquiring foreign currency to fund the lifestyles of the 300 families and the rest of the elite. To this you can add counterfeit cigarettes, smack and methalamphetimine(sic) (whatever you call the stuff…..Yaba …. )
    South Fujian is the other major centre for counterfeit cigarette manufacture in Asia.
    North Korean chemists are very good at their job and in high demand.
    North Korean diplomats have a record of getting busted for illegal activities in foreign lands.
    North Korea has controlled the sale of speed- type drugs in Japan since the 1960s. This was facilitated by the Korean community living in Japan. The name of their organisation can be found on wiki etc, and it is a very interesting and sad story indeed.

    There was/is a lot of fraternal feeling between the two Korean communities, besides the drug finance stuff.
    Japanese colonialism had a profound effect on the idea of Korean identity
    Keep in mind that there were anti-Korean pogroms in Japan in the 1920s….a sad fact in Asian history, tied up with the idea of clean and unclean trades.
    Japan’s vicious occupation of the Korean Peninsula in the 192Os.

    I think it was around 2004 that Chine’s banking police caught North Korea flooding the northern provinces with perfect 100rmb notes. It was *very no appreciated* by Beijing, and they closed the borders until it stopped, which it did.
    Other than that, China has little influence on the North Korean elite and, to tell the truth, Koreans either side of the DMZ generally look down on Chinese ‘as unwashed and uncivilised’.
    People with smelly socks.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      Perhaps, Tubby, but like I said above, even the sources Tom listed point to a degree of uncertainty around the extent and control of the trade. Indeed, the link Tom provides to a U.S. gov’t report doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the claims when they are supported by the likes of Grassley and Helms whom themselves cite “press reports” about the drug trade. The NPR report seems to have as its main source a storekeeper in the U.S. who claims to have been in Km’s inner circle at one time. Should I apologize for being dubious?

      As I said above, I don’t doubt that all kinds of illegal activity goes on inside the North, some of it might even go on at the behest of a gov’t desperately seeking foreign currency. But to say it’s uncontroversial probably says more about the diplomatic stupidity of the DPRK as it does about the strength of the evidence.

      • Tom says:

        The way you describe the NPR report is a bit misleading. As a recent immigrant, shopkeeper may be one of the few jobs available to her, and should not be used to diminish her reputation. If you listen to the report, she does not claim to be a part of Kim’s inner circle, but a person involved with cross boarder trade and crime. Her reports are strikingly similar to countless others made by N. Korean defectors.

        Do you have any evidence that suggests N. Korea has been “framed” in this? Considering that both China and the US are united on this issue, which is not true in too many places, I think it lends a fair amount of credibility to the situation.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        No, Tom, I don’t really have a horse in this race. My only dissenting point in this whole discussion is with respect to the strange ambiguity of claims made in the available reports. The majority of the source of claims in articles and reports seems to be “press reports,” including the congressional report you linked to. I would tend to read any such claims as questionable (the report itself suggests this), which, as I pointed out above, doesn’t mean that I find them particularly difficult to believe. As far as the unity of the U.S. and China goes, that does tell us something about a common interest in containment of Korea.

  8. kingtubby1 says:

    Well. try author Bertil Linter .

  9. […] Red in China | Silence as a Mirror: Tom says that the dearth of reaction from the Chinese media beyond iterating official North Korean reports […]

  10. Fanta says:

    Interesting blog, Tom, which I just happened to chance upon. I read with interest those who are discussing how China’s political space will look like in the near and distant future. Just to point out several points:

    (1) China’s leadership increasingly recognise the need to address people’s concerns. This can be done broadly in 2 ways, either (a) a transition to a democracy or (b) alternative means not amounting to the setting up of a full-fledged democracy. Without a doubt, the first option has been ruled out, because it will undermine the power of the ruling elite. The second option has clearly been favoured, as evidenced most recently by the statements calling for more ‘people-oriented policing’ etc. There is thus going to be more engagement with the people in the near future.

    (2) Whether this trend towards greater engagement leads to a movement for democracy in the distant future, however, is a moot point. I for one am doubtful of any such move, but let’s set out the factors for and against:

    – Globalisation, which may lead to a greater awareness and understanding of Universal (rather than Western, simply because the conduct of the USA and some would add, the UK, have been nothing short of hypocritical) values.

    – The desire to avoid any destabilising moves, which might happen in a sudden shift towards democracy (the Chinese are still keenly aware of the disastrous repercussions of the Cultural Revolution).

    – The weaknesses of the West (I am referring here more towards the perception that Western societies have become too liberal and their people have far too much freedom, which has led to a do-as-you-want and take-as-you want culture). Note that I have mentioned the word ‘perception’, because it is probably what some Chinese think, but it may or may not be the truth.

    The above are currently the factors which I can think of (and feel free to add more). What is important to consider then is this: where exactly do the viewpoints of the majority of the Chinese lie? I am inclined to think towards the latter, but I am not sure.

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