As noted in the Washington Post in September, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un is playing the United States and China off each other to gain leverage and improve his own bargaining position. This tactic of playing great powers against each other has been used by North Korean leaders previously in history. During the Cold War, for instance, North Korea’s first leader, Kim Il Sung, tended to play China and the Soviet Union off against each other to make the most of his own position and increase his rewards. However, with the current increasing tensions in the South China Sea and broader U.S.-China rivalry, this diplomatic double game entails, not only opportunities, but also large risks for the North Korean leader.
The competition between rising power China and the current hegemon, the United States, has taken worrying turns in 2018. The Trump administration’s imposition of tariffs on Chinese goods ignited the ongoing trade war between the countries. Recently, the increasingly adversarial relationship has been manifested through displays of naval power in the South China Sea. Throughout 2018, the United States has increased its naval presence in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. Consequently, in early October, a Chinese Luyang destroyer came dangerously close to colliding with U.S. warship USS Decatur. This risky and rather provocative maneuver was deemed by the U.S. Pacific Fleet as “dangerous and unprofessional” and can symbolize the current situation.
It is in this hostile Sino-U.S. environment that Kim Jong Un has sought to improve relations with the United States and South Korea. Meanwhile, North Korea has also emphasized its close ties with China. Kim has publicly advocated for “stronger” bonds with China. These claims, however, ring hollow as the Pyongyang regime flirts with Washington. Even though Kim’s astute foreign policy might result in a continued Chinese liaison, the United States has too much to gain to not take the gamble of drawing North Korea closer to itself. A successful American “wedging strategy,” causing North Korea to switch sides, would be the boldest diplomatic move of this century. The Trump administration would gain a lot of praise, both domestically and internationally. Moreover, the balance of power in the region would shift from status quo into a U.S. advantage. China’s leadership is most likely aware of this possibility.
This diplomatic double game, which might serve Kim well, also poses a major risk to his reign. In some senses, it is irrelevant whether Kim stays on China’s side or not. If Beijing trusted Kim even a little, that trust is gone now. It was forfeited with Kim’s increased affability towards Washington. China tends to respond harshly when regional politics jeopardizes its national security (e.g. issues concerning Tibet or Taiwan). An unpredictable North Korean leader, shifting allegiances (or threatening to do so), constitutes a major national security threat.
It’s not difficult to image that the Chinese have a plan for regime change in Pyongyang. Kim’s domestic power base is mainly constituted by the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), the Korean People’s Liberation Army (KPA), the North Korean secret service, and his own Guard Command. Among the first two groups, there are probably a fair number of power-hungry individuals who quietly disagree with the leader’s new approach to the United States. It is not inconceivable that China, with all its resources, could use these elements to topple Kim’s regime if the Chinese leaders perceive it as necessary.
This, however, is an extreme scenario which currently is unlikely to play out. Such an enterprise would be a highly risky endeavor for all involved. It would have to succeed, no matter of the costs. Above all, in a country where the cult of every supreme leader has been ingrained in the population for the past 70 years, it would be a near impossible task to replace Kim with an “ordinary” general. On the other hand, there are well-founded theories of foreign policy analysis, claiming that actors tend to be more prone to take risks when there is a lot to be lost. A renegade North Korea would entail a major loss for Beijing, a loss which would not be quietly accepted. Certainly not in a time where the conflict with the United States has materialized and is increasing. Kim ’s diplomatic double game might pay off in the end, but it might also see the end of his regime if he is not careful.
Magnus Lundström is a former research associate at the Swedish Defence University in Stockholm, Sweden.