China favors smooth transition of power in North Korea
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Within hours of Monday’s announcement that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was dead, China sent a telling, one-sentence message of condolence: the nation could turn “sorrow into strength” under the authority of Kim Jong Un, scion of the “Dear Leader.”
China had doubled down on a dynasty that’s been both ally and thorn in the side.
The young Kim is untested, but his smooth transition into leadership is China’s best chance to maintain the kind of “harmonization” so highly valued by China’s controlling Communist Party. Although China had become increasingly exasperated by the elder Kim’s nuclear saber-rattling, the domestic stability he maintained through absolute control ultimately outweighed the bad.
The hope now, it seems, is that the young son of the unpredictable dictator will do no worse and, quite possibly, bring about economic reform for the secluded nation.
The consistent goal of China’s policies toward North Korea the past dozen years was to keep the country politically and socially stable, according to Murray Scot Tanner, a China analyst with Virginia-based think-tank CNA.
China has described North Korea as its “most dangerous border,” because of fears of an influx of refugees, illegal drugs, weapons and counterfeit currency, Tanner said in an email interview. The country also serves as a buffer zone to the U.S. alliance with South Korea and Japan.
China’s commitment to the Kim legacy was likely brokered during one of several visits to China by Kim Jong Il last year, said Professor Li Mingjiang at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“In the short term, China’s top priority is the survival of the new regime, and it’s quite clear that China has made up its mind to support the young Kim,” Li said.
The new ruler will also benefit from continued trade with China, the largest source of North Korean imports at just over $1.8 billion in 2009, according to a report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service. North Korea exported $793 million in goods to China in 2009, up from about $41 million 10 years earlier.
Two factors partly drive China’s desire for a trouble-free transition.
First, China is gearing up for its own change in leadership next year, when a new prime minister and president will be selected.
“In the midst of this succession, Chinese leaders are not going to make controversial [decisions] regarding any foreign policy affairs — unless they have no other choice,” Patrick deGategno, with CNA’s China Strategic Issues Group, said in an email interview.
Second, the so-called Jasmine Revolutions in the Middle East have left China party officials jittery. Steady inflation of food prices, skyrocketing home costs and routine news of official corruption in China have led to general unrest. Protests over “land grabs” by local officials are frequent, with residents in the southern town of Wukan now in open rebellion over the practice. Government crackdowns on domestic micro-blogging sites, intended to eradicate dissent, have provoked yet more anti-government sentiment.
“China’s Communist Party is especially concerned about a North Korean Jasmine Revolution giving inspiration to the Chinese people,” according to Gordon G. Chang, author of “The Coming Collapse of China.”
“China is already volatile, as the ongoing Wukan revolt shows. So Beijing’s leaders will always put their survival ahead of the economic prosperity of either the Chinese or the North Korean people,” Chang said in an email.
Other China experts, however, think that China’s support of Kim Jung Un is a good-faith belief that he could bring positive changes to North Korea.
“Right now, we don’t want to see any fundamental change there because it involves risk,” said Liu Ming, director of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences’ Center for Korea Studies. Kim will consolidate his power base over the next six to 12 months, at which point “it might be a good time for North Korean leaders to revise policy that will give the people there a better life.”
Li said he believes China will attempt to persuade Kim to open the country up and initiate economic forms, albeit much more gradually than China did.
“In the past 10 years, China had been urging Kim Jong Il to open up and reform,” he said. “But he was concerned about negative repercussions from that. Now he’s dead and this major obstacle has been removed.”
Some analysts see this as advantage to China.
Chang said that senior officials in North Korea aren’t likely to risk pursuing new initiatives with South Korea, the United States or European nations at this sensitive time.
“Therefore, China by default becomes more important,” he said. “Moreover, the Chinese and North Korean militaries, both growing more powerful in their respective capitals, will strengthen their existing economic ties.”
The U.S. has moved forward with its own plans for re-engaging militarily in Asia. In November, President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. would deploy 2,500 Marines in Australia, a move that didn’t please China.
Despite tensions over the move, changing North Korean leadership could be an open door for China-U.S. cooperation.
“It could be argued that Kim’s death provides a rationale for [China-U.S.] cooperation, in as much as both have an interest in dialogue, stability and denuclearization on the peninsula,” James Manicom, a fellow at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Canada, said in an email.
Confrontation between China and the U.S. would become much more likely if the young Kim’s regime falls into chaos or collapses, said Professor Zhang Baohui, a China expert at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.
“In that case, the U.S. or South Korea might attempt to do something, which of course would take the form of reunification,” Zhang said. “That implies the South would take over the North. In that scenario, China would have significant concerns because South Korea is a major ally of the United States and a unified Korea would pose a security threat for China.”