Kim Jong Eun surgery rumors force open a sliver of daylight with China

January 25, 2013

(David Guttenfelder -- Associated Press)

North Korea's official news agency has taken the unusual step of publicly rebuking a rumor about young leader Kim Jong Eun, and has chastised China, its sponsor and only real ally, in the process. The vitriolic report insists that the 30-year-old Kim absolutely, positively did not receive plastic surgery to look more like his deceased grandfather, Kim Il Sung. Such rumors have been around for years, but just as rumors. So why condemn them now, at the risk of just lending them greater legitimacy?

Since taking control of the country, Kim Jong Eun has aggressively cultivated an image in his grandfather's likeness. Kim Il Sung, considered North Korea's national founder, is practically deified. His son and heir, Kim Jong Il, rarely appeared in public and never fully inherited his father's cult of personality. Now, Kim Jong Eun seems to be doing everything he can to draw comparisons between himself and his beloved grandfather, which could help him considerably in consolidating and maintaining power.

The long-running rumors, that Kim Jong Eun's resemblance to Kim Il Sung is more than just genetic, got a big boost from a mainland Chinese station called Shenzhen TV. The network, based in the country's more liberal southeast, cited a "diplomatic source" who said he or she had traveled to Pyongyang recently, where a North Korean official had confirmed the rumor.

Take that report with a big grain of salt, given that it comes from an anonymous official who is quoting another anonymous official. What's interesting here is the response from Pyongyang's state media, and not just because it reaches into the great heights of angry North Korean rhetoric (representative line: "Time will clearly show what dear price the human scum and media in the service of traitors of south Korea, slaves of capital, will have to pay").

Rather, it's surprising to see state media even acknowledging the coverage of the rumor, and thus implicitly the rumor itself. Perhaps most significant of all is North Korea's decision to chastise Chinese media. Beijing isn't just North Korea's most important ally, its policies – watering down U.N, sanctions, limiting the flow of North Korean defectors, providing investment and hard currency – are crucial for the regime's survival. You would think that North Korea's propagandists would be extremely careful to avoid even the slightest sliver of daylight between the two countries.

China, for its part, seems to share concerns about this rumor becoming a source of tension with Pyongyang. Chinese censors have been ordered to suppress the story, according to NKNews. This rumor will probably go no further in the Chinese media.

Still, even if this incident is over, it might not be the last time that Chinese media and social media, where the rumor circulated long before appearing on Shenzhen TV, upsets North Korea. The recent scandal over censors restricting Southern Weekend, long relatively free for a Chinese paper, exposed the degree to which the Chinese increasingly consume and even expect news media that serves them. Social media's reach and raucous freedom are expanding as well, all of which threatens to bring Chinese attitudes toward North Korea closer to the surface.

North Korea is still seen as an ally by many people in China, where students learn in school about the "Help Korea, Oppose America" war, Beijing-based journalist Helen Gao wrote in The Atlantic last year. But there is also a growing sense that Pyongyang's backward policies are an embarrassment to and burden on China, according to Gao. Those sentiments, as well as the usual interest in juicy rumors about plastic surgery and the sort, could drive more Chinese public interest in stories like this one. And that could translate into Chinese media interest, or at least public pressure for it.

This all comes at a time when Beijing had been struggling a bit to keep Pyongyang close. In a post at Johns Hopkins's Korea-focused blog 38 North, analyst Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt argues that the relationship is souring a bit. "Kim Jong Un is determined to set a course for greater political independence from Beijing," she writes. "This has left China in a state that one insider has referred to as ‘desperate’ over its rocky relations with the country since Kim Jong Un came to power." She says she's found no evidence that Beijing is anything less than fully committed to its policy of maintaining regional stability and a reliably pro-Beijing regime in North Korea.

Earlier today the Chinese Communist Party-associated Global Times took the remarkable step of publicly chastising Pyongyang. The paper declared, "If North Korea engages in further nuclear tests, China will not hesitate to reduce its assistance to North Korea." That's not the same thing as actual policy and is probably just a threat, but it's surprising nonetheless.

So what does all of this mean? Maybe nothing; maybe this brief flare-up, and the Chinese censors' quick response, just demonstrates how serious Beijing is about keeping the status quo. But it's also possible that this could be the start of a trend, in which China's increasingly noisy media ends up drawing attention to the fault-lines in the Beijing-Pyongyang alliance, and possibly even adding one or two. That doesn't mean that the Kim Jong Eun rumors are going to alter Chinese foreign policy, but it could become a small but important factor if that relationship ever significantly worsens.

I leave you with this excerpt from the KCNA statement condemning the media coverage of the Kim Jong Eun rumors. They are mostly just talking about South Korean media here, not Chinese, which gets this much milder charge that it will "suffer international shame." Still, it is wondrously absurd, like a tone poem of ultra-nationalist propaganda. Enjoy.

We see this as the ignorance of the situation of the DPRK in which the army and the people have formed a harmonious whole with the leader, and a sordid hackwork of rubbish media which has thrown away the elementary appearance of journalism.

The sun will always give off its light even though rats make nonsensical remarks moving around ditch, while finding it hard to raise their heads to the bright human world.

It is true that the sun always shines and it is a foolish and ridiculous thing, at the same time, to attempt to eclipse the sunshine with a palm.

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Olga Khazan · January 25, 2013