North Korea seals Chinese border to prepare for funeral of Kim Jong-il


AT THE frontier between China and North Korea, trade and traffic has stopped after the North sealed the border to prepare for the funeral next week of the late Kim Jong-il.

There is normally busy trade in towns such as Dandong and Tumen across the border from North Korea, but the secretive state is in lockdown as it focuses on a smooth succession to Kim Jong-il’s son, the young Great Successor Kim Jong-un.

The lockdown in North Korea comes amid reports that Kim Jong-un will have to share power with an uncle and the military as the isolated country shifts to collective rule from strongman dictatorship.

Reuters quoted a source saying that the military, which is trying to develop a nuclear arsenal, is unlikely to stage a coup because it has pledged allegiance to the untested Kim Jong-un, who takes over the family dynasty that has ruled North Korea since it was founded after the second World War.

Jang Song-thaek (65) brother-in-law of Kim Jong-il and the younger Kim’s uncle, is seen as the power behind the throne along with his wife Kim Kyong-hui, Kim Jong-il’s sister. So too is Ri Yong-ho, the rising star of the North’s military and currently its most senior general.

China is North Korea’s most staunch ally and the country that has largely propped up the North during a period of tough sanctions by the international community. Shutting the borders is most likely a sign that Pyongyang wants total focus on the funeral of Kim Jong-il, rather than any reflection of tensions with China.

Certainly in diplomatic terms, relations between the two ideological allies, whose relationship is “sealed in blood” since they fought together in the Korean War 1950-1953, look very strong.

On the Chinese side, leaders continued to beat a path to the North Korean embassy in Beijing to offer condolences. Yesterday’s visitors included premier Wen Jiabao, and some of the country’s most powerful leaders such as Jia Qinglin, Li Keqiang, He Guoqiang and Zhou Yongkang.

All this a day after president Hu Jintao dropped in to pay his respects, and offer a visit at a “convenient time”. Beijing is believed to have a powerful role in ensuring the succession runs smoothly. Kim Jong-un received the blessing of the Chinese powers-that-be in recent months, and this was explicitly referred to in Mr Wen’s words of condolence.

“Wen expressed the belief that the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, under the leadership of the Worker’s Party of Korea and comrade Kim Jong-un, will definitely turn their grief into strength and make new progresses in their drive to build the socialist country,” the Xinhua news agency reported.

China’s economic transformation is said to be an attractive model for some in the leadership in Pyongyang, and Beijing is keen to encourage this kind of development. However, for China, the succession in Pyongyang remains fraught with danger.

Nightmare scenarios include political meltdown, which could see South Korea gaining influence on China’s borders. Economic meltdown could send millions of refugees into China’s territories.