Some experts are starting to think about how Beijing will maintain its position as the guarantor of stability and strength on the Korean peninsula, which, to some extent, is opposed to the United States and its allies. Here it is necessary to mention the nuclear issue, and what China’s policy will look like towards the future of North Korea in general.
In the mass consciousness, and even among political scientists who are not Orientalists, there are some very strange ideas about how relations between Beijing and Pyongyang are forming.
Some believe that China’s patience is over, and the imposition of sanctions against North Korea’s Bank for Foreign Trade, as well as the emergence in Chinese mass media of fairly tough and hard-hitting criticism of North Korea (including a call to revise the traditional model of relations) point out to the fact that China has joined the “international community” in condemning the regime and soon Pyongyang would be handed over. The other extreme – attempts to present “North Korean attacks of madness” as being done at the instigation of Beijing. This means that every time when there is some tension in China and U.S. relations, China plays its North Korean card, and Pyongyang begins to act.
When forecasting the situation in the region, several trends should be taken into account, which will likely characterize the situation in the future.
First, this is the above-mentioned course of reforms, which at least looks like a “weakening” of the pressure technique. Cancellation of “one family – one child” policy, elimination of the system of labor camps, where one could be imprisoned by administrative order, force us to ask the question about how the gap between China and North Korea policies will increase or decrease.
Actually, this makes some authors of liberal orientation conclude that, sooner or later, the ideological contradictions will reach the level at which China will join the “international community” for “punishment of the rogue state”.
Second, it is worth mentioning the growth of China’s claim to the status of a regional superpower, which is leading to increased nationalist sentiments of the great country, meaning more active foreign policy activities, and attempts to form a favorable “environment” on the borders of the country.
According to the public opinion in China, this is the end of the “Century of Shame” and is the period of the restoration of China’s role as the hegemon, over the surrounding “small countries”. To some extent, here may be included attempts to establish Chinese priority over disputed territories such as the islands in the South China Sea and the Senkaku Archipelago.
On the other hand, the rise of China is meeting with some resistance from the part of the United States, and its regional allies, who understand that the rise of China is a “security dilemma”. In this context, the North Korea card is used by China’s opponents to increase regional influence, to expand missile defense systems in Asia, and to create a range of bilateral blocks, pointing to the threat from North Korea. This is directed to contain China.
Third, this is the growth of the Chinese economy, including the economy of the Northeastern region, which further emphasizes the importance of cross-border stability and the creation of a buffer zone on its borders.
Fourth, this is a generational factor. Those who fought in Korea and analyzed the Sino-North Korean relations through military brotherhood, are gradually fading from life. Those who re replacing them do not have the same level of emotional connection (with North Korea) and their approach to solutions ismore pragmatic.
Nevertheless, it is not necessary to ignore completely the factor of personal relationships. One of the top five new leaders is Zhang Dejiang, Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, an expert on relations with North Korea. He studied Korean at Yanbian University, and then in 1978-1980 he studied at the Faculty of Economics of the University of Kim Il Sung and even was the secretary of the Party Branch of Chinese Students Studying in North Korea. In 1990, Zhang Dejiang accompanied Jiang Zemin during his visit to North Korea, and later was appointed as the Communist Party of China Committee Secretary of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Okrug.
Fifth, this is a set of objective factors related to the situation in North Korea. This refers to the fact that, unlike Kim Jong Il, whose enthronement process took about 30 years, the young leader does not have such a long time and, as a consequence, does not have a similar set of administrative experience and managerial qualities. Thus, it is possible to conclude that the control of the “center” over the regions and industries can be relaxed.
In addition, the new leader does not have that degree of credibility as the predecessor. If speaking about Kim Jong-il, it was possible to predict the strategy on a particular issue (what he could or could not do), it is very difficult to predict the young general’s actions. Thus, this leads for a need to great caution and distrust.
Sixth, it is necessary to take into account the subjective factors that are associated with Kim Jong-un’s personality and his leadership style. Already it is clear that he is copying his grandfather’s style (not his father’s), showing determination, and, possibly, great impulsivity. Moreover, although it is quite questionable when touching upon the relationship between objective and subjective factors in Jang Song-taek’s elimination, the young Kim will uniquely show himself as a leader with an active position and a leadership nature. However, from the point of view of an external analyst, Kim Jong-un’s character makes him less predictable, and in the environment where you can expect different results, it is more sensible to take a tougher position – to make it clear of what NOT to do.
Finally, the Chinese policy is influenced by two points that define Russia’s position in this matter as well. On one hand, this is the load of international obligations, according to which China, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a nuclear power, is required to maintain denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and to condemn North Korea’s disregard of UN resolutions. On the other hand, border stability is very important for China. War or humanitarian disaster on the Korean peninsula will give rise to a multi-million flow of refugees from the North. China represents a natural direction for escape, due to geographical location and the presence on the territory of a numerous Korean population.
Together, this means that China’s attention to Korean affairs is very strong, but the reasons of this attention change. Although the ideology in the relations of the two countries have long given way to pragmatism, China has a vital interest in the northern part of the Korean peninsula – as this stability is essential for its domestic policy. However, the question of how to ensure this stability, what China should do and North Korea should and should not do, becomes more open to debate (as in the Chinese society as a whole).
Then, on the background of economic growth and political influence of China, the great-power sentiments are rising. In this context, the cross-border “favorable environment” is perceived more as a zone of Chinese control, and the “small countries” should at least not oppose their interests to China’s.
The change of North Korea leadership offers great possibility to the pragmatists, because many things can be changed with the new leader. In addition, this makes the debate open about what China should achieve, what goals it has set itself, which methods to use, and how North Korea should behave to meet Chinese expectations.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D., Senior Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute for Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Science, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.