The following are excerpts of a RFA interview with Andrei Lankov, a native of the former Soviet Union who lived as an exchange student in North Korea in the 1980s:
RFA: What has been the extent of [Kim Jong-un’s] purges?
Lankov: He’s been purging not only military officers but also security officials on a scale not seen in North Korea since the late 1960s, when his grandfather Kim Il Sung was consolidating power. … It means that he wants to be taken seriously. And it means that he wants a docile and obedient military.
RFA: We’ve seen reports of some senior officials defecting to South Korea. Do all of these purges indicate instability at the top of the Kim regime?
Lankov: The common assumption at the moment is that the purges point to instability. I’m not so sure about that….But if the current policy continues, it might increase the chances of a military coup.
RFA: Let’s talk about China. One of the officials executed in 2013 was Jang Song Taek, who was Kim’s own uncle. He was accused of being a traitor. This became a source of tensions with China, since the Chinese considered Jang to be a trusted negotiator and go-between. What are some of the other sources of tension?
Lankov: First, China is seriously unhappy about North Korea’s continuing development of nuclear weapons. China absolutely doesn’t want a nuclear North Korea. And some Chinese officials had pinned their hopes on Jang Song Taek as the man who could introduce Chinese-style economic reforms in North Korea. That hasn’t happened. North Korea’s missile launch and nuclear test in 2012 and 2013 were major causes of tension.
RFA: What are some of the other sources of tension?
Lankov: Finally, Xi Jinping may be the first Chinese leader to have only a faint memory of the Korean War. He has no sentimental links with North Korea. And there’s a great deal of mutual dislike on both sides. … many Chinese officials who didn’t grow up with direct experience of the Korean War, such as Xi Jinping himself, consider North Korea to be not a younger brother in arms but a strange, bizarre, irrational, and very stubborn country that creates lots of problems for China.
RFA: Some U.S. experts are disappointed that China hasn’t applied many of the sanctions called for by the U.N. against North Korea following its nuclear test and missile launch. Why does China choose to apply sanctions against only a few North Korean banks or companies but not against many of the others?
Lankov: China has a vested interest in keeping North Korea afloat. China needs a relatively stable North Korea. They don’t want to deal with the fallout from a North Korean collapse, which would likely be a messy situation involving thousands of refugees. They don’t want a North Korea under South Korean control. And North Korea serves for China as a buffer zone against the Americans and South Koreans.
[Excerpts of Radio Free Asia interview]