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Understanding Kim Jong-un: The view from Beijing
Huey Fern Tay reports on the implication for China of North Korea's new regime.

Within weeks, South Korea and the United States will hold their first joint military exercises since the death of North Korea's Kim Jong-il late last year.

As usual, the announcement was greeted with condemnation from Pyongyang. One sign at least that some things remain the same after the transition to Kim Jong-un.

But just what the full implications are remains a mystery, even across the border in China, the North's lone ally.

Huey Fern Tay reports from Beijing.
Transcript
(Footage of North Korean television report on Kim Jong-un plays)

HUEY FERN TAY, REPORTER: A man of the people, that's the image of Kim Jong-un, the North Korea media show the country over the lunar new year. The propaganda doesn't just end there. much has also been made about the physical resemblance between Kim Jong-un and his grandfather, Kim Il-sung.

MUN IL HYUN, CHINA UNIVERSITY OF POLITICAL SCIENCE AND LAW (Translation): Kim Jong-un is young and does not have any experience governing a country and has no authority or results to show within North Korea. That's why North Korea has to craft Kim Jong-un's image based on his grandfather's because his grandfather is regarded as a god by the people of North Korea.

HUEY FERN TAY: Since Kim Jong-un inherited his father's position as president a little more than a month ago, he's been described as a brilliant military strategist and a genius. But just who is this man? Few details exist. Even his exact age has been kept secret.

And observers like Yang Xiyu feel the Chinese may not know much about him either, even though Beijing and Pyongyang are close allies.

Dr Yang specialises in North Korean affairs and worked at the Chinese embassy in Washington DC.

YANG XIYU, CHINA INSTITUTE OF INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: Yes, it is true Kim Jong-un visited China with his father. But during those visits it was clear the focus was on his father, Kim Jong-il. We had to go through a familiarisation with North Korea's previous leader as well.

HUEY FERN TAY: Even though China may not be very familiar with Kim Jong-un, it recognised his legitimacy. All nine of the Communist Party's top leaders turned up at the North Korean embassy in Beijing to pay their respects to his father, Kim Jong-il.

But until now, Chinese leaders have not publicly expressed their thoughts on the new leader, a man who only started appearing in public two years ago when he was being groomed for the top job. This included trips across the border to China with his father.

It's believed Beijing hoped those study tours would nudge North Korea go into opening up its economy. Kim Jong-il never did.

Analysts say Beijing will continue to try to coax Pyongyang into adopting Chinese style economic reforms, but it won't push hard.

MUN IL HYUN (Translation): The most pressing issue now for Pyongyang is to stabilise its internal affairs. The Chinese government understands Kim Jong-un's situation, and that's why they won't raise the issue in the short term. But once the Chinese government feels things have settled down in Pyongyang, they will definitely raise the issue.

HUEY FERN TAY: Yet in Beijing there's a belief that the regime must shift even if it doesn't want to.

North Korea is being propped up by international aid, and Chinese observers say that's not sustainable.

There's also speculation that Kim Jong-un's uncle may have a reformist streak in him. He is said to be guided the new leader and could influence him to change.

But Dr Yang Xiyu says it's wrong to assume that Kim Jong-un won't have his own views on the direction North Korea takes.

YANG XIYU (Translation): We can only say that Jang Sung-taek is an important member of Pyongyang's political system. It's not like what some Western media think, that he has absolute control and that Kim Jong-un is a merely a puppet; it's mere speculation.

HUEY FERN TAY: So just what might Kim Jong-un do about his country's nuclear program? Would there be any chance of the six-party talks being revived?

Some analysts say there is no economic incentive for the North to rejoin because it's being sustained by aid that's largely from China. Others are more optimistic.

YANG XIYU (Translation): The impasse hasn't been broken, not because there's been a change in North Korea's policy. Rather it's because both sides haven't been able to find a solution to their differences. But I'm happy to see that both sides haven't given up on finding a solution.

HUEY FERN TAY: While Beijing might accept incremental change in North Korea, the status quo remains in its interests. A collapse of the regime in Pyongyang would disrupt trade and send North Korean refugees fleeing across the border.

China will also begin its own once in a decade leadership transition later this year, and the top echelon of the Party will want to ensure its troublesome neighbour doesn't disrupt that.
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