No one doubts that there is a significant “North Korea problem.” Few doubt that the answer is “China.” Unfortunately, the few are those who rule China.
The so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is creating global unease with its nuclear weapons program. The North Koreans are thought to have enough nuclear materials for ten to twelve bombs, though their actual capabilities are unknown.
Moreover, the North has been escalating its attacks on the Republic of Korea. A DPRK submarine is thought to have sunk a South Korean warship in March. Two weeks ago Pyongyang responded to ROK military exercises by bombarding a South Korean island in the Yellow Sea.
Still, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il’s regime offers a certain ugly stability. The man is known to enjoy his virgins in this life rather than the next, and therefore is unlikely to intentionally start the Second Korean War.
But he suffered a stroke two years ago and is advancing his youngest son, just twenty-eight or twenty-nine, as his heir apparent. The latter’s ascension is by no means certain. Other relatives could play a role in the coming transition. Moreover, a gaggle of Communist officials, military brass, security operatives and nameless bureaucrats have been waiting years for their chance to rule.
A power struggle could go violent as everyone looked to their favorite general. Perhaps the only thing worse than an opaque brutal dictatorship with nuclear weapons is an imploding opaque brutal dictatorship with nuclear weapons.
There is no obvious solution. Washington has made more than its share of mistakes in dealing with the DPRK, but the Kim regime never has demonstrated any enthusiasm for abandoning its nuclear program. It is even harder to believe that Pyongyang will ever voluntarily yield up whatever materials and bombs it currently possesses. As the regime enters a potentially extended time of political uncertainty, no one likely will challenge the military.
So now what?
Military action could lead to the destruction of Seoul, the heart of the South’s population, economy and politics. The North already suffers under severe sanctions, which have limited effect without Chinese support. Advocates of regime change lack practical weapons to advance their objective. Proposals for more talks reflect the triumph of hope over experience. Which has led people from across the political spectrum to look to the People’s Republic of China to sort out the Korean conundrum. That appears to be the Obama administration’s latest strategy.
Unfortunately, the PRC will not pressure North Korea because Washington asks it to do so. Nor will Beijing confront North Korea because the United States tells it to do so.
Washington could put the entire bilateral relationship on the line, but would have to follow through on its threat if China said no, as the latter almost certainly would. (And as the United States likely would do in a similar situation.) Giving in to Uncle Sam would not be a good strategy for rising within the Chinese political hierarchy.
Reluctant compliance could be almost as bad, permanently damaging a relationship upon which global prosperity and peace likely will hinge later this century. Washington would face a far more antagonistic PRC, forever muttering “never again” and determined to win the next bilateral showdown. China will act only if it believes doing so is in its interest.
By all accounts the PRC today believes the status quo is better than the alternative. Singapore’s former–Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew explained: “Beijing sees a North Korea with nuclear weapons as less bad for China than a North Korea that has collapsed.”
Pyongyang and Beijing may no longer be “as close as lips and teeth,” but the historic ties are real. Earlier this year Kim Jong Il and his son, plus a number of other officials, paid homage at the grave of Mao Anying, Mao Zedong’s son who died during the Korean War.
Moreover, the North’s threats give China significant international leverage. The United States and South Korea, in particular, constantly ask Beijing to use its influence. No doubt this feeds the egos of the residents of Zhongnanhai (the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership compound in Beijing). It also provides the PRC with an issue to use when Washington makes demands in other areas.
Chinese officials fear a North Korean implosion. Hundreds of thousands or millions of refugees could head across the Yalu. The potential for social dislocation in border provinces with many ethnic Koreans may matter more than the cost.
A collapse of the DPRK also could be violent. Policy makers in Beijing would not welcome chaos on their doorstep. Look at the U.S. border state reaction to burgeoning drug violence in Mexico.
Finally, Chinese officials do not want a unified Korea, at least one allied with the United States and host to American military forces. Said Cai Jian, a professor of Korean Studies at Shanghai’s Fudan University: a North Korean collapse “will put an American military alliance on the doorstep of China.”
There is evidence, some captured in the WikiLeaks cables, of an emerging debate in China in media, academic, think tank and foreign ministry circles. Many Chinese are frustrated with the North’s persistent irresponsibility. Beijing already unofficially hosts tens and maybe hundreds of thousands of North Koreans. A U.S. Army division next to the PRC is militarily irrelevant when U.S. planes, ships and missiles can operate from bases well away from China. Former–Assistant Secretary of State Michael Green claimed: “You talk to any Chinese official, and they’re furious with the North Koreans.”
Nevertheless, nothing appears to have changed in Beijing. Cai Jian observed: “A lot of people want to change the policy, but the traditional school is winning.”
There are lots of theories as to what was behind the DPRK’s recent military provocations. Whatever the reasons, China has backed its ally. Beijing responded with platitudinous calls for restraint in a “complicated situation” and proposed emergency talks. Several top officials and delegations crossed the Yalu in both directions in 2010. Aidan Foster-Carter points out that Chinese Politburo member Zhou Yongkang attended the official unveiling of Kim’s son as dauphin in Pyongyang.
Thus, to win China’s cooperation Foggy Bottom needs to convince Zhongnanhai that, these considerations notwithstanding, the PRC is better served by working with the United States, South Korea, and Japan against North Korea.
It is important not to inflate China’s control over Pyongyang. “China does have more influence than other players but we have to remember China does not have absolute influence,” explained Wenran Jiang at the University of Alberta.
The PRC long has urged the Kim regime to follow the former’s example of economic reform. Of late Beijing even has increased its investment in the North. Yet the Kim regime has been reversing prior economic reforms. Moreover, both Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il, have ignored Chinese qualms over monarchical communism. The latter took his son, Kim Jong-un, to China earlier this year.
Beijing has one sure and one possible tool of influence. The first is to end North Korean energy and food assistance, along with trade. The PRC is thought to provide the North with about 90 percent of its energy and 40 percent of its food. A cutoff would have severe effects on the DPRK.
Whether the North would comply or attempt to stumble along, and in the latter case, whether the regime would survive or face domestic chaos and conflict, is impossible to predict. But as Fareed Zakaria observed: the PRC “has the power to make the North Koreans pay a very, very high price were they not to listen to the Chinese.”
China’s second source of influence might be intelligence contacts in Pyongyang. The Kims have guarded their regime’s independence, but the country no longer is hermetically sealed. Both traders and refugees now regularly cross the Yalu.
Moreover, some members of the North Korean elite, especially if dissatisfied by the prospect of another Kim-to-Kim handoff, might have made friends within the DPRK’s big neighbor. Indeed, Kim’s eldest son, Kim Jong-nam, lives in the PRC and recently criticized his father’s planned familial succession. Beijing might be able to influence policy and personnel in the North Korean capital.
Thus, Washington’s objective should be to convince China to threaten to use its economic clout—and to follow through if Pyongyang says no—to alter the North’s policy of nuclear expansion and reckless confrontation. The United States also should encourage Beijing to use any other avenues of influence to promote de facto regime change. The personalities matter less than the policies.