North Korea’s next leader Kim Jong-un, the youngest son of ailing Kim Jong-il, made a high-profile public appearance at a gala anniversary celebration in Pyongyang on Saturday. North Korea’s top ally, China, is sending a heavyweight delegation that will stay in North Korea from Saturday to Monday. According to state news agency Xinhua, the delegation is being led by Zhou Yongkang, the Chinese Communist Party’s ninth-ranking leader.
The visit follows a major North Korea Workers’ Party conference held on 28 September which enshrined Kim Jong-un’s succession. Earlier this year, Kim Jong-il made two visits to China, in which Kim is thought to have sought and secured China’s support for his son’s succession.
China has long been a tacit supporter of Pyongyang, and it is apparent that it plays a key role in North Korea’s transition. To be sure, China is no admirer of the Kim dynasty and is annoyed by North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship. But for the Chinese, stability is a top priority, as a sudden collapse of North Korea could lead to flooding of refugees into Northeast China. As The Economist comments (23 September 2010):
Whether North Korea can manage a successful transition depends not only on events inside the country, but also on China, without whose help the North would quickly collapse. Privately, many Chinese pour scorn on the Kim dynasty. But the government would probably be content with any arrangement that has a reasonable chance of keeping the country stable and on good terms with Beijing.
But the Kim dynasty is both a source of stability and instability for China. On one hand, China shares longstanding historical and ideological ties with the Kim regime, and backing it up ensures that China continues to have more leverage over Pyongyang than any other country. On the other hand, in order to defend hereditary succession, the Kim dynasty is likely to avoid opening the country more to the outside world. This, in itself, means that North Korea will continue to be a fragile and economically unstable regime, as Chinese blogger Li Kaisheng explains:
To defend hereditary succession, the Kim dynasty has to keep North Korea as a closed country and continue to fool its people. This will lead to a economically retarded and fragile North Korea, which will practise provocative foreign policies. In the long run, such a neighbor is not suitable to be China’s strategic buffer zone; in worse cases, it could even become a strategic liability.
Jiao Zongye, writing in Singapore newspaper Zao Bao, also explains how the Kim regime could become a strategic liability for China in terms of soft power:
The evils of the Kim dynasty are well known. When talking about North Korea, the international community will think of China. Innocent Chinese citizens might think that mighty Chinese diplomatic power is having a significant influence on North Korea. The fact is, without China, North Korea would collapse. China has to carry the image of this tyrannical regime wherever it goes. To the world, this is not a reflection of China’s power but its authoritarian politics. North Korea’s hereditary succession represents backwardness and selfishness. For a China which is striving to improve its international image, political influence and internal social conditions, its support for North Korea is a liability. If China does not cut its ties with North Korea, the world would think that China is the spokesperson and defender of tyranny.
It is unlikely that China will push North Korea into significant political changes. However, the same Economist article predicts that China would hope to see some gradual changes in order to reduce the unpredictability of North Korea:
China is unlikely to push Mr Kim or his successor into reforming the North’s political system, though some observers of North Korea think China may want Mr Kim to boost the role of the party at the expense of the army to make the regime less unpredictable. But China will continue trying to prod the North Koreans into reforming the economy and opening the country more to the outside world. It hopes a transformation like the one that China itself has achieved since the death of Mao Zedong might avert a sudden collapse.
How exactly can this be achieved? Li Kaisheng suggests that hereditary succession is the biggest obstable, but China could leverage on its economic supports to North Korea:
The Chinese government has already realized the disadvantages of a closed and backward North Korea. It is trying to persuade North Korea to implement economic reforms. But the Kim regime is well aware that once the country is open to the outside world, hereditary succession will lose legitimacy and mass support. Therefore, as long as the hereditary succession is there, real economic reform is not possible.
But China still holds all the elements for North Korea’s survival: food, energy and international support. The key point is that China should effectively employ these policy leverages so that it will neither collapse or nor fall into America’s hands. This requires strategic insights and implementation skills. We cannot but admit that Kim Jong-il is a genius player in power balancing and strategic timing. Because Chinese leaders are weaker players in these respects, China is being taken advantage of repeatedly by North Korea in recent years, with little benefits from North Korea in return.