Kim Jong Un Distrusts China, Wants 'Friendly' Ties With U.S., Says High Level Defector

Ri Jong Ho, a former senior North Korean economic official who defected in 2014, describes a meeting in which leader Kim Jong Un expressed his dissatisfaction, and some profanity, toward China and its president. (3 min., 36 sec.)

The relationship between China and North Korea was once so tight that Mao Zedong, the founding leader of the People's Republic, referred to the two countries as "lips and teeth." But this closeness masks an enmity that lies just beneath the surface. To wit: A high-level North Korean defector says that in 2014, leader Kim Jong Un called Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping “a son of a bitch.”

Speaking at Asia Society in New York on Monday, Ri Jong Ho, a former senior economic official in North Korea's "Office 39" who defected to South Korea in 2014, said the insult came at a meeting with high-ranking officials during a period that exacerbated already deteriorating relations between the two countries.

The meeting came on the heels of Xi’s July, 2014 visit to South Korea, where he met with then-South Korean President Park Geun Hye. The visit broke the precedent of Chinese heads of state visiting North Korea before visiting the South. “Kim Jong Un took it as a humiliation, a personal insult,” Ri said, adding that Kim also called the Chinese people “those sons of bitches Chinese” at the meeting and said cultural, economic, and military ties with China should all be severed. He justified this decision by saying his father and predecessor Kim Jong Il had warned him: “We need to always stay independent from China.”

In December of the previous year, Kim Jong Un had shocked many international observers when he had his uncle by marriage, Jang Song Thaek, executed. Jang had been a close ally of Kim Jong Il and was widely considered the second most powerful person in the country, holding substantial influence over the economy. In 2012, he had met extensively with top Chinese leaders and reportedly shared their hope for North Korea to undergo a Chinese-style “Reform and Opening Up” of its economy. But Jang also reportedly knew these views were anathema to Kim Jong Un and his desire to maintain absolute power.

“When Jang had that dialogue with Chinese leadership, China was relieved,” Ri said. “But when China saw he was executed, it said, ‘They’re not reforming their economy, but they're begging us for food and money.’”

Ri speculated Jang’s execution coupled with Kim Jong Un’s ignoring repeated warnings from China not to conduct provocative weapons testing made Xi angry enough to snub Kim. Since taking power in 2011, Kim has never been invited to China or met any high level Chinese officials. Asia Society Policy Institute Diplomat-in-Residence and former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel noted that the embarassments have gone both ways. In the past year, North Korea has launched nuclear and missile tests during sensitive events for China, including its Belt and Road Forum and BRICS summit. "[Kim] has been very provocative, very deliberate in seeking to embarrass China," Russel said, adding though that North Korea's effort to substitute trade and economic activity with Russia has "failed miserably."

Ri said fundamental tension between the countries stretches back to Kim Jong Il’s rule in the 1990s, when China had begun to “embrace capitalism,” causing “great suspicion in North Korea.”

This account accords with that of another high-level defector, Jang Jin Sung, who knew Kim Jong Il and claimed he resented China’s suggestions in the early 2000s that North Korea follow its path of “Reform and Opening Up.” Kim felt “an acute sense of betrayal” in China’s reforms and relations with South Korea. “The country Kim Jong Il hates most is China,” Jang Jin Sung wrote in his memoir.

Ri noted North Korea’s leadership “desperately wants a relationship with the United States” and to be part of the international community, in part because it doesn’t trust China as an ally. Even if China comes to North Korea’s aid to thwart a U.S. invasion, Kim doesn’t believe his dictatorship will be allowed to remain intact.

The defector explained that Kim Jong Un believes that in the long term he’ll have to have a more friendly relationship with the U.S. in order to stay in power, even though his current nuclear and ballistic missile development — which he also views as key to ensuring his survival — is undermining that goal. Ri added that North Korea also doesn’t want South Korea as part of that relationship. “North Korea’s leadership never respected South Korean leadership,” he said. “Even in the past, North Korea did not want South Korea involved in the talks — it wanted two-way talks with the U.S.”

“North Korea’s leadership wants to stop the frozen relationship with the U.S.,” Ri added. “However, they haven’t come up with the strategy yet.”

Ri claimed that he understands the North Korean economy “like the palm of my hand” and believes the increased sanctions recently imposed by the U.S., China, and other countries are of “historical” proportions and having a “very hurtful” domino effect on the country’s industries and revenue. “I don't know if North Korea will survive a year with the sanctions,” he said. “Many people will die.”

Ri Jong Ho, a former senior North Korean economic official who has defected, discusses Kim Jong Un’s calculations, behavior, and worldview with Asia Society Policy Institute Diplomat in Residence Daniel Russel. (1 hr., 20 min.)

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Eric Fish was a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and is author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.