Bad Blood

Is North Korea's double dealing risking its most important relationship?

In August 2012, top North Korean official Jang Song Taek visited Beijing. Jang, the uncle of North Korean President Kim Jong Un, had made several trips to China before and after, but this one was probably the most important. He met with then President Hu Jintao and then Premier Wen Jiabao, underscoring the importance of the bilateral relationship, and signed several agreements, the most prominent one concerning a special economic zone in Rason, just across Chinese border in northwest North Korea. Comrades-in-arms ever since the anti-Japanese War and the Korean War, China and North Korea have long maintained a special relationship. And Jang was North Korea's premier China hand -- Pyongyang's point person in bilateral economic cooperative projects.

All of that, however, has now changed dramatically. In early December, Pyongyang said Jang, who was thought to be the second most-powerful man in North Korea, had been stripped of all his posts. On Dec. 13, Pyongyang announced Jang's execution -- demonstrating the unpredictability brutality of North Korean politics, and also how intense palace in-fighting has become.

But it could also be a very worrying sign for China's relationship with North Korea. In the statement announcing Jang's execution, published Friday, Dec. 13, Pyongyang implicates China several times. It denounces Jang for betraying his national interest by leasing land in Rason to a "foreign country" -- obviously China. It claims Jang allowed his confidents to illegally sell precious minerals and coal, also allegedly to China.

While it is not difficult to understand the North Korean regime's need to consolidate power by purging Jang and his cliques -- not unheard of among countries of the former Soviet bloc -- it is not easy to understand why Pyongyang so openly linked China with Jang as part of the justification for his sudden and brutal purge. Yes, North Korea has the right to execute a highly corrupt official, but using this occasion to negatively implicate its neighbor is highly questionable. On Dec. 13, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei stated that Jang's execution is North Korea's internal affairs, adding, "We hope and we believe that the business relations between China and the DPRK will continue to progress in a healthy and stable way." This message, however, may have been politely optimistic.

One wonders if Pyongyang has any interest in conducting future business with China. If China has accepted Jang's "selling" of North Korea's "national interests," as Pyongyang claims, does the Kim regime want China to apologize and "return" these national interests? If this is true, and Jang has sold out his country, North Korea obviously will not proceed with Rason. Ruediger Frank, a North Korea expert at the University of Vienna, told the Guardian, "The public nature of the whole thing might perhaps be a message to China: we have got your man and stay out of our business." Does Pyongyang want to communicate that it is closed for business?  

Instead, both governments should take credit for, and honor, the 2012 agreement to co-develop projects in Rason. If that agreement contained any inadequacies, the two sides should have consulted bilaterally and then put forth a mutually acceptable amendment. China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson also stated, "what China and North Korea have conducted is normal economic and trade cooperation, which is of the common interests of the two countries and two peoples" -- elegantly rebuffing Pyongyang's insinuation that China was shrewdly double-dealing with Jang. That is the way to conduct diplomacy. One party publicly embarrassing the other -- especially through such a high-profile case, claiming Jang sold out his nation's interest, and China allowed it -- is unacceptable.

An interesting aside: in its long list of crimes Jang allegedly committed, Pyongyang also includes the charge of trying to stage a coup: "thrice-cursed treason." If that was true, it may have been in Jang's interest to sabotage international cooperation in Rason. A more isolated North Korea would increase the likelihood of economic stagnation and even famine, thus setting the stage for Jang's alleged coup.

Either way, North Korea cannot blame China. If Jang were indeed trying to cheat North Korea by selling off its national interests, China would not have allowed it. If the charge is false, Beijing will not let its country be demonized by Pyongyang. Amid Jang's purge and the coming crackdown of Jang's followers, the Rason collaboration could be difficult for Beijing to maintain -- until Pyongyang can apologize. North Korea knows better than anyone just how much more it has received from China than it has given. Yes, executing Jang is certainly not China's business. But condemning a criminal for his relations with China, under Pyongyang's authorization, is very unhelpful to the continuation of the relationship. 

WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images


The Debrief

Jihadists as possible forces of peace, Russia as a potential dealmaker, and other conclusions from the inaugural PeaceGame.

Syria is the world's newest problem from hell. The conflict is stalemated, with no end in sight.

More than 100,000 are dead and millions are displaced from their homes. Forty-six percent of the population needs humanitarian aid. There are more than 5,000 foreign Sunni fighters, including more than 1,000 from the West. Prospects for a negotiated settlement at the next round of Geneva talks are dim.

Is peace possible in Syria? Participants in the first-ever PeaceGame, hosted by Foreign Policy and the United States Institute of Peace on Dec. 9, wrestled with this very question -- devoting as much rigor and expertise to charting paths to peace as defense planners typically devote to war games. The participants were seasoned professionals from a range of backgrounds, and they applied the learned skepticism that comes from work in the trenches of diplomacy and humanitarian assistance. The group also included Syrians and those who had spent years in the country -- people with a personal stake in the outcome.

Participants noted the conventional wisdom that the Syrian conflict is not "ripe" for resolution, and they ruefully agreed with this assessment. The conflict has not yet reached the point necessary to bring parties to the negotiating table, nor does any party have the ability to impose a victory. Yet given the human toll, simply accepting the status quo seems intolerable. So we explored seriously what it would take to make the conflict ripe for resolution. What did our PeaceGame participants conclude?

SYRIA COULD FIND PEACE IN PIECES. While our Syrian participants emphasized that most Syrians prefer a unified government, the PeaceGame team suggested that an official or de facto partition of territory controlled by various regime and opposition actors could limit the fighting and facilitate the delivery of humanitarian relief. Decentralized control could take many forms: It could occur through a power-sharing agreement with autonomous zones and decentralized formal governance; it could occur through a de facto stalemate in which some territory remains contested but some areas of the country begin to achieve stability. Either way, participants could foresee scenarios for a partial if imperfect peace.

JIHADIST FIGHTERS MIGHT BE UNLIKELY FORCES FOR PEACE. The growing threat posed by jihadists may be one of the most important drivers for a peaceful outcome in Syria, according to PeaceGame participants. While this conclusion appears counterintuitive given the extreme brutality of the jihadists, the rising threat from extremists is one of the few concerns that Russia, Iran, regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and the West all share. The threat is so potentially severe, it is one of the few dynamics our PeaceGame participants identified that could push some combination of internal and external actors to finally cut a deal.

EXTERNAL ACTORS MIGHT STARVE THE CONFLICT OF SUPPORT. A range of external actors fuels the current fighting in Syria. Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah back the Assad regime. Gulf states back the rebels, including jihadist opposition forces that make the West uncomfortable. The West backs the Syrian opposition but not enough to tip the balance decisively, out of wariness that arming rebel groups will draw the West further into the conflict or inadvertently end up supporting the jihadists.

While typically, external actors are viewed as "meddling" in the Syrian conflict and fueling it, they could also be forces for peace if they became willing to change their positions, impose an agreement, or agree to withhold support from the various Syrian factions. The calculus of external actors could change, PeaceGame participants noted, if the jihadist threat grows, the refugee crisis threatens to seriously destabilize Lebanon and Jordan, or the perceived costs of the conflict grow otherwise. Both Turkey and Iraq could support regional pressures for peace by doing more to stem the flow of fighters, arms and money across their borders.

INTERNAL ACTORS MIGHT UNITE. The Alawite community has stood by Assad so far, fearing that no one else can protect them from the threat of revenge or sectarian violence. With sufficient security guarantees -- an admittedly challenging prospect -- PeaceGame participants suggested that elements of the Assad regime and moderate elements of the opposition might unite against the common threat of extremists. These two groups could find space to cut some form of a power-sharing agreement, our participants speculated, if Assad himself were to not run for re-election.

RUSSIA MIGHT CUT A DEAL. Russia does not want to Syria to fragment, which would present an uncomfortable model for its own citizens at home and embolden extremists who could then turn their focus to the Caucasus. While Russia would not want to abandon Assad publicly, our participants agreed, a face-saving alternative -- perhaps an Assad regime, minus Assad himself --might be welcome if the (figurative) price were right. Yet PeaceGame participants agreed that Russia alone was not influential enough to engineer this sort of exit by Assad. If either Iran or the Alawite community in Syria also saw it in their interest to design such an outcome, however, our participants felt Assad could not withstand the pressure.

IRAN COULD BE A WILDCARD. Although the Obama administration has rejected any linkage between Syria and a nuclear deal, PeaceGame participants wondered if a nuclear deal could open new opportunities for collaboration on Syria as well. Since Iran shares a fear of empowered Sunni jihadist fighters on its borders, the seeds of an agreement are possible, particularly if some form of Saudi-Iranian détente emerges.


While these observations have the ring of realpolitik, participants in the PeaceGame also looked beyond the halls of power and identified potential steps that could begin to improve conditions in Syria.

First, some participants called for attention to often overlooked actors who could be forces for peace. Specifically, they called for outsiders to bolster civil society within Syria, whose support they viewed as critical to undermining the power of foreign jihadists. They also called for much greater engagement of both leaders and young people in the region's swelling camps of refugees, since these camps contain both potential constituencies for peace -- and potential spoilers down the road.

Second, as conditions allow, participants recommended small-scale external support in limited areas, even before the conflict is resolved. "Ungoverned spaces" rarely lack governance entirely and feature informal mechanisms of governance, which can be more resilient and effective than formal institutions. Outsiders can work with these institutions even in the absence of formal agreements and governance. Similarly, large, top-down approaches to economic reconstruction were unsuccessful far too often in Iraq and Afghanistan, participants noted. Decentralized economic reconstruction efforts both fit the Syrian context and may ultimately be more effective.

Third, the humanitarian tragedy unfolding in Syria also offers opportunities for internal and external actors to work together and test each other's intentions. Such pragmatic collaboration related to humanitarian access could lay the foundation for other types of agreement.

Finally, our participants agreed that there is no reason to wait until an end to the conflict to support efforts to de-escalate sectarianism. Such sentiments fuel the conflict and make any resolution more difficult.

PeaceGame participants departed feeling no more optimistic that peace in Syria is imminent. What we did uncover, though, is that the paths to peace may be more numerous than we previously realized. They may be found among either the strong or among the weak. They may come globally, regionally, or locally. They may be forged by allies, or more likely by enemies. They are hard -- tortuously hard. But they are there. And they are worth pursuing.

Chris Maddaloni for Foreign Policy