Time for Secret Talks with China

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Time for Secret Talks with China

The risk of a dangerous misunderstanding following the death of Kim Jong-il is real. The U.S. should propose secret talks with Beijing on how to move forward.

The death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il increases the likelihood that the stress on the multiple fault lines in Korean society will reach the point of breaking. Secret talks with China to plan for contingencies have long been overdue. They are needed now more than ever.

As many note, in the initial phase of the succession, the roughly 600,000 in the privileged North Korean elite can be expected to adhere to each other. The operating principle is the old phrase from Ben Franklin: all hang together, or all hang separately. 

For the ordinary abused North Korean, the repression system will retard efforts to seize the opportunity for change presented by a new and untested leader. But as time passes, the fault lines can be expected to make themselves felt, and not improbably through violence.

There are huge generational issues. Can a twenty-something Kim Jong-un, a four star general in an army in which he has never served, impose his will on 80-year-old marshals? Will key army, party, and government officials be replaced by much younger associates of the new leader or will they resist?

There are obvious issues of competency. Will seasoned officials provide the advice Kim the third wants or the advice he needs? Will he accept it, or will it feed his suspicions? Will he continue his father’s legacy of anti-reform policies, or will he give greater scope to market forces?

There’s a family-based regency of Aunt Kim Kyong Hui and her husband Jang Sung Taek. Regencies have a troubled history in societies with strong Confucian influence, with power gravitating to one authoritative individual. There would be no need to illustrate this phenomenon to Chinese who know their history.

There are world record economic issues of poverty and mismanagement. The elites are rapidly becoming more knowledgeable about the outside world and their South Korean cousins and how they compare with the “workers’ paradise” in the North. They have the Internet, proliferating cell phones, and radios, all easily obtained through the pervasive corruption of the system. Increasingly, these new outlets are reaching ordinary citizens, as well.

The military must be conflicted. Senior officers were replaced shortly after Kim Jong-un was made a four star general. The air force and navy have been starved for resources and arms by policies to support the nuclear weapons program and the reluctance of China to make up for the shortfalls. Will there be a contest for control over the nuclear materials and weapons, or will we face the proliferation challenge of “loose nukes”?

So, once the initial shock and reflexive cohesion of the system after the death of Kim Jong-il have passed, China, South Korea, and the United States may be faced with one or several challenges. “War games” played over the years have demonstrated that civil conflict, refugee flows, military mutiny, “loose nukes,” or diversionary outward aggression are all easily envisioned. They all can escalate quickly.

Under deteriorating circumstances, will South Korea see it necessary to interfere in civil or military conflicts? Or will it be forced to respond to aggressive attacks? Will China and North Korea be able to prevent a flood of river-crossing refugees or boat people? If U.S. Special Forces move to secure the North’s nuclear capabilities, how will China respond? Does it have its own plans? Will sudden reunification lead to American forces on China’s borders under the U.S.-South Korea alliance?

These questions are why the time has come for the president of the United States to propose secretly to his counterpart in Beijing that trusted, empowered emissaries meet somewhere out of sight to seek and offer important assurances. To open the conversation, the United States might reassure Beijing that any forces that go into North Korea to secure the nuclear facilities wouldn’t be permanent, and that Washington has no plans to station forces north of the 38th parallel under the circumstance of Korean reunification by the South. 

China’s reaction and/or counterproposals can then be sought, all in order to prevent misunderstandings of each other’s actions and signals, and to de-conflict the forces potentially involved.

Beijing has been reluctant to engage in this kind of dialogue, although Chinese thinkers have increasingly acknowledged privately the need for such an authoritative conversation. North Korea watches for any sign of disloyalty by Beijing, however trivial. The WikiLeaks affair has heightened China’s sense of risk, which must be addressed in the modalities of the talks.

The phone conversation on the North Korean situation this week between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, suggests Beijing is more attuned to the need for a serious conversation than ever before. The Obama administration should seek to deepen this opening as soon as possible. And I hope none of us hear about it.

Douglas H. Paal is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He previously served as vice chairman of JPMorgan Chase International, and as unofficial U.S. representative to Taiwan as director of the American Institute in Taiwan. This is an edited version of an article published here.