Don't Hold Breath on Korea


The unexpected, but long anticipated, death of Kim Jong-il has put relations between China and North Korea in the spotlight. All actors in the international community attempt to influence and understand the Korean Peninsula (unfortunately in that order), but as Yonsei University professor John Delury has noted, China is the only nation that can pick up the phone to ask the North Koreans what’s going on.

As a result of this, there’s an implicit assumption in many countries that China is capable of influencing the direction of future developments in North Korea. But this is only partially true – there are significant limitations on China’s ability to influence Pyongyang moving forward.

For a start, China’s influence in North Korea during Kim Jong-il’s time in power was in fact rather limited. Still, recently, the need to gain China’s approval of Kim Jong-un’s appointment as “the Great Successor” prompted several visits by Kim Jong-il to China, and it appears that a deal has been made that will secure Chinese support for his son at the cost of increasing Chinese influence in North Korea. This is in line with recent developments in which China has taken an increasingly assertive stance on foreign policy and defense matters in the region, and North Korea is no exception to this trend.

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This isn’t to say that attitudes towards North Korea in China are uniform. There’s widespread disagreement as to how China should react to the changes that we are seeing in North Korea today – and what these changes will mean for the future.  China’s official statements suggest that Beijing is confident that North Korea will continue on the road to stability and development (even if most people privately doubt that this is something that can be easily accomplished) and that it strongly supports the new government under Kim Jong-un. The Chinese Politburo cemented its support with an official declaration on December 19 that set out the Chinese stance in no uncertain terms.

Still, among the academic community and unofficially among government officials, there have been more critical voices of North Korean policy, and even some outright calls for far-reaching changes and economic liberalization. Others have sounded a note of caution over Kim Jong-un’s ability to lead the country.

Such apprehension has also been evident in posts by commentators on China’s social media websites about the succession, North Korea’s future and China’s role, with many remarks posted frequently running counter to the official government position. This was highlighted in the differing reactions on the Sina Weibo site to Kim’s death and that of former Czech President Vaclav Havel. The latter’s death was met with respect and sincere mourning, while Kim’s was frequently met with jokes and disrespect. The Chinese government was, in contrast, relatively quiet on Havel’s death, but showed outward respect for Kim.

Of course, the reality is that you can’t pick your neighbors, and so China arguably has the greatest interest in seeing positive change in North Korea, not least in the economic arena. For some time, the Chinese government and others have seen at least some signs that Kim Jong-il might be moving towards a more open economy. But with Kim’s death, it now seems unlikely that China will do anything for the time being to rock the boat by exerting pressure on North Korea. The Western calls for China to utilize this “opportunity” to create political change in North Korea are naïve – China is primarily interested in ensuring its own stable development and in keeping U.S. and South Korean troops out of North Korea, something that’s best accomplished through maintaining the status quo (or even taking a step or two step back).

The problem for the Chinese government is that it will now have to assume much greater responsibility for North Korea, regardless of what the public view is, as backing away now would be fatal to China’s strategic interests. There’s widespread uncertainty regarding U.S. intentions in the region among the Chinese security establishment, and losing North Korea would be perceived as a blow to national security and national prestige. On the other hand, the Chinese military is well aware of the problems that a North Korean implosion or explosion could entail.

As a result of Chinese support for the new government, we can now expect to see strengthened military and political cooperation. This will in part be because of the weak position of the new North Korean leadership, but also because there are leaders in China likely to emerge with strong links to North Korea, such as Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang, who graduated from Kim Il Sung University and who has taken a leading role in handling China-North Korea relations.

All this suggests that unless North Korea stirs up trouble, China will strengthen its support of the North Korean government, which will draw the two countries even closer. Likewise, as long as the outside world doesn’t pressure North Korea too much, then China will continue to gradually press for long-term economic change.

Policymakers in Beijing don’t appear to anticipate any major change in policy toward North Korea, but rather a strengthening of the country’s current influence that stops short of being able to tell Pyongyang what to do. North Korea won’t become a new province of China, but it certainly won’t escape Beijing’s influence either. 

Niklas Swanström is director of the Institute for Security and Development Policy, and one of its co-founders. He is a research fellow at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies and editor of the China Eurasia Forum Quarterly.

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