The sudden death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il poses another, and potentially very dangerous, new challenge to U.S.-China relations. Possible knock-on effects of Kim’s demise – ranging from a regime collapse to provocation by a weak and insecure successor or other forms of civil strife in North Korea – will force China, the United States, and South Korea to respond. If mutual distrust drives Washington and Beijing to take actions that each believes would serve its security interests, but which might be perceived by the other as provocative and ill-intentioned, the United States and China could be plunged into a crisis neither wants.
Sadly, as the two great powers have little control over the succession process in Pyongyang, factors determining the stability on the Korean Peninsula and the complex geopolitical relations in East Asia are the factional dynamics, leadership personalities, and unknown levels of popular discontent inside North Korean. External influence exerted by great powers may affect the political calculations of North Korea’s ruling elites, but only to a very limited extent. Students of history should find this situation familiar: it’s not the first time that the geopolitical fortunes of great powers are held hostage by the political machinations of the rulers of a strategically located small nation.
Given the huge stakes involved in the future of the Korean Peninsula, the volatility and unpredictability produced by Kim’s death has greatly increased the risks of great power conflict. A reunified Korea will certainly mean the loss of a buffer state for China, which will view a continuing U.S. military presence, particularly north of the 38th parallel, as a grave security threat. Massive refugee flows into China, meanwhile, will spread Pyongyang’s civil chaos into the Chinese border regions populated by ethnic Koreans and create a huge political headache for Beijing. Joint U.S.-South Korean efforts to restore order and security north of the 38th parallel, if undertaken without consultation with the Chinese, will make the Chinese apoplectic and could even trigger an ugly confrontation as Beijing suspects that the U.S. and its South Korean allies are attempting to create facts on the ground first.
Of course, a clash between the United States and China over North Korea needs not happen under the best scenario, in which Kim Jong-il’s designated successor, Kim Jong-un, manages to establish his authority and gain the support of North Korea’s military and security forces quickly. If this is the case, Beijing, South Korea, and Washington will be only too happy to extend aid so that the status quo can be maintained. Unfortunately, the chances for Kim Jong-un doing so aren’t good. No modern authoritarian dynastic regime has succeeded in passing power to the third generation (mostly because of the fall of the second-generation rulers). Unlike his father, who had at least two decades to be groomed into his role as the heir apparent, Kim Jong-un, still in his late twenties, has barely three years of political apprenticeship and, reports suggest, a weak character.
That leaves us with two other possible, and decidedly worse, scenarios. The first one is one full of ambiguities. Under this scenario, Kim Jong-un competes for power with rivals in the top North Korean leadership. Since none could quickly establish supreme authority, leadership instability in Pyongyang is high and the new regime’s decision-making erratic. This could lead to a number of outcomes. Pyongyang might be tempted to engage in another round of nuclear blackmail. It could engineer a deliberate, but small-scale, military incident to ratchet up the tensions. The purpose of such provocations is to try to consolidate the power of the new leadership and gain more economic aid, particularly from China, as the price for maintaining the status quo. The danger for China and the United States is that such provocations could escalate and lead to an all-out war.
An even more hair-raising scenario is an outright collapse of the Kim Jong-un regime. Under this scenario, several forces will have to converge. At the top level of the regime, powerful military figures may decide to topple Kim Jong-un before he gains full control. Infighting within the ruling elites could temporarily paralyze North Korea’s repressive apparatus, allowing the country’s long-suffering populace an opportunity to protest or flee en mass, thus creating a real political crisis. The combination of elite defection and mass uprising can quickly lead to a regime collapse – and make the reunification of the Korean Peninsula a reality.
The greatest challenge for the United States and China at this crisis moment is to reach a set of strategic understandings that will protect their respective security interests. In particular, Washington and Beijing need to resolve the three critical issues that are certain to top the security agenda in the event of a regime collapse in Pyongyang. First and foremost, they must agree on the lines of demarcation of their respective militaries in case the People’s Liberation Army and the U.S. and South Korean militaries have to go into North Korea to perform combat, stability, or humanitarian operations. Second, they must agree on the deployment of U.S. military after reunification. Beijing will be unlikely concede to extending American deployment north of the 38th parallel, but Washington may not want to bind itself to a firm commitment. Third, Washington and Beijing must agree on how to secure North Korea’s nuclear weapons and facilities.
Although conventional wisdom holds that China wields the greatest influence over North Korea, Beijing will actually have the weakest card to play in a regime collapse scenario. Because Seoul and Washington are genuine strategic allies, South Korea is a pivotal player should it take over the north. In all likelihood, Seoul will accede to Washington’s desires, not Beijing’s. Under such a scenario, Beijing’s worst nightmare on the Korean Peninsula could come true: it will find not only the loss of a buffer state, but also an entirely new security landscape in which its own security and influence have greatly diminished – all because of the unexpected demise of one man.