Can it be said that this congress will mark the end of Kim’s consolidation of power, transitioning to air-tight leadership?
Absolutely. The process began with Kim’s investiture, and he has been consolidating since his father’s death. I am convinced of this even though often the press talks about a series of executions of this person or that person, as if it were a new thing. These are events that have always existed in Korea. Kim is not doing anything new: When he took power he gradually liberated himself from the vast group of people loyal to his father and whom he was told would not be faithful to him. He prefers to surround himself with a new band of characters who were very minor but who guaranteed absolute loyalty. He did what dictators normally do, which is to surround himself with loyal people.
China seems more and more annoyed, although as your book points out, this is not news. But it is also true that these signals are much stronger than before.
One of the major efforts that I made in the book is on the Chinese question: North Korea has been annoying China for some time. Since the times of Deng Xiaoping there has been a kind of loosening of relations. Deng had guided Kim Il-sung toward economic reforms, but Kim was there to receive the help.
China has tried to steer Korea toward a new economic policy for some time. The last administration is very annoyed by North Korea; also from a symbolic point of view, it is there for all to see. Xi Jinping has never considered visiting North Korea, and neither have the Koreans paid homage to their traditional ally. That says a lot: There is a fraying of relations.
Chinese print media now constantly criticize Pyongyang publicly; this is the first time this has happened. In addition, China is supporting the U.S.’s position because if it is true that it has ratified the sanctions on the surface while trying to convince everyone to break them, it is also true that North Korean ships are not allowed to dock at Chinese ports and China has blocked some trade with Pyongyang, including the procurement of coal, the backbone of trade between the two countries. So there is an easing, but it is very difficult to imagine a total detachment. It would mean that China decides to take on a very big problem in the region, with various risks. Let us not forget that an imploded Korea would mean finding a place for its nuclear arsenal and prosecuting its entire political class.