[OVERSEAS VIEW]Have a plan for regime failure in PyongyangChinese specialists on Korean affairs have revealed greater concerns about the political stability in North Korea than at any other time since the height of the North Korean food crisis in 1996-97.
Chinese concerns do not necessarily mean that the political leadership in Pyongyang is near a collapse, but they reveal that China’s crisis is primarily about North Korea’s economic and political stability, not its nuclear weapons.
Chinese analysts are preoccupied with a fundamental dilemma in pursuing stability in North Korea: unless North Korea pursues reform and opens up, it cannot survive, but reform and openness could lead to political instability in North Korea, to the detriment of China’s own interests.
China’s primary objective is to prevent instability while simultaneously encouraging North Korea’s economic reform ― not to denuclearize North Korea as the United States desires or to promote South Korea’s unification aims. The exchange of summits in recent months between Hu Jintao and Kim Jong-il has strengthened China’s political influence in North Korea. Chinese investments in North Korea’s energy and other sectors and the widespread availability of Chinese products in North Korean markets have raised anxieties in Seoul that China is making North Korea into China’s “fourth northeastern province.”
China’s economic rise has given it new tools for promoting the stability of weak states on its periphery. Chinese government-led investments and cheap products are providing China with the decisive political influence to stabilize weak or failing state structures in neighboring countries such as Pakistan, Laos and Myanmar, as well as North Korea.
Chinese specialists recall their own experience with opening and reform, and fret that North Korea cannot claim a “peaceful environment” in which to pursue reform as long as there is nuclear confrontation with the United States. The Chinese want the United States to lessen tension and promote an environment conducive to North Korean economic reform.
North Korean leaders focus on the security threat from the United States, but the greatest enemy of the North Korean system is the penetration of external goods and information and the development of self-interest and individual choice as real options for the North Korean people. These bottom-up changes are eroding North Korea’s corporatist, leader-centered ideological controls and transforming the relationship between the individual and the state.
The rapid emergence of legal and illicit cross-border market interactions that have mushroomed outside state-level political controls in China or North Korea are the real threat to the North’s political stability. The seeds of North Korea’s demise, ironically, are likely to be “made in China,” not the United States.
Certainly, China prefers a Korean Peninsula that is friendly to China, or alternatively the maintenance of North Korea as a strategic buffer. Chinese analysts remain suspicious of American intentions. They believe a U.S.-North Korea confrontation is in America’s interest and that President Bush’s hopes for a peaceful, unified, free and democratic Korean Peninsula must be resisted.
Chinese analysts know that change in North Korea is inevitable, but they claim that there is no alternative to Kim Jong-il’s leadership, in which they have made a significant political investment. Despite North Korean efforts to restore political controls, disaffection with the top leadership that was almost unknown a decade ago is gradually spreading with the flood of external cultural influences that has invaded Pyongyang. This development is most worrisome to Chinese analysts concerned about North Korea’s stability.
It is no accident that Chinese military forces moved closer to the border with North Korea in recent years.
Military analysts admit that Chinese contingency plans are in place to intervene for “environmental control” to secure nuclear weapons and fissile materials in the event of regime instability, but the primary objective would be to protect China from the spillover effects of chaos in North Korea. Likewise, the United States surely has its own plans to secure North Korean “loose nukes” in the event of political instability, regardless of possible political or legal obstacles to such an intervention.
Given the low level of U.S.-Chinese military-to-military relations and high level of strategic distrust over the future of North Korea, there is no effective mechanism for official dialogue between the United States and China to mitigate the possibility of accidental conflict in the event that more than one state tries to secure “loose nukes” during political instability in North Korea.
The 2001 crisis involving an American intelligence aircraft brought down on Hainan Island revealed the risks that derive from poor channels of communication.
Regardless of whether or not North Korea’s regime is likely to fail or become unstable, there is a need to address such contingencies and clarify proper courses of action.
Advance discussions among the three countries might minimize the prospect of a conflict between special operations forces from the United States, China, and/or South Korea in any race to secure North Korea’s “loose nukes” during a period of regime crisis in the North.
* The writer, a senior associate with The Asia Foundation and Pacific Forum CSIS, is currently a Pantech Fellow at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC).
by Scott Snyder