[Viewpoint] Fear and loathing in BeijingShortly after leaving the Bush administration, I went to Beijing to participate in a track 1.5 discussion on North Korea. We brought a group of former high level officials from the White House, CIA, U.S. Agency for International Development and State Department. Our Chinese counterparts were high level officials from the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, the Central Party School and the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences, all semigovernmental representatives.
When the topic came up of instability in North Korea arising from the sudden death of Kim Jong-il, the Chinese scholars scoffed at the idea. They said Kim Jong-il’s health was not as bad as the West believed. They said that he had recovered well from his stroke in 2008. They said that the North Korea system was stable and that a dynastic succession to the third son was inevitable, so the United States should stop “dreaming” about instability in North Korea. Instead, they argued, Washington should focus on re-engagement and peaceful diplomacy with Pyongyang, and a return to the six party talks.
China pushed this line because it had a straightforward strategy for dealing with North Korea. One, Beijing’s core objective was, and continues to be, maintaining the division of the Korean Peninsula and keeping the DPRK as a strategic buffer. Two, it has signed major mining contracts with the North since 2008 in order to fuel the growth of its two poorer northeastern provinces, Liaoning and Jilin, by extracting resources and raw materials from Korea. Three, Beijing authorities have provided a minimal (not maximal) amount of assistance to keep the Kim regime afloat. Four, in order to deter North Korean provocations (that might escalate with a South Korean retaliation), as well as to deter U.S. unilateral action, Beijing constantly has pressed Washington to engage in diplomacy with Pyongyang. And five, Chinese interlocutors have consistently told their American counterparts of their belief in the regime’s stability to achieve the same objective of both pacifying the U.S., and persuading it into negotiations with the North.
After Kim Jong-il’s death, the Chinese, acting as though the DPRK was its newest province, called all relevant ambassadors into their good offices in Beijing and demanded that all outside powers “respect” the dearly departed North Korean leader. China publicly was the first country to recognize Kim Jong-un as the new leader, and the first to invite the young Kim for an official visit to China. A long line of high-level Chinese officials then offered condolences at the DPRK Embassy in Beijing.
To protect its smaller communist brethren, China’s public position on the post-Kim Jong-il has been very positive. They accept the leadership and say publicly that the succession is going well and according to plan. But how certain are the Chinese of their opinion? I think they have a great deal of anxiety right now about the situation. I don’t think they really know what is going on inside of the DPRK.
First, there has not been any of the regular party-to-party high-level dialogues or military-to-military since Kim’s death that could give them a window into this dark kingdom. State Councilor Dai Bingguo had a very good personal relationship with Kim Jong-il. No one in China’s leadership has that sort of relationship with Kim Jong-un.
Second, Beijing always has raised hopes about DPRK economic reform as the antidote to preventing instability, but the leadership probably has little confidence that the junior Kim could accomplish such reform. China was able to accomplish modernization reforms starting in 1979 because of Deng Xiaoping’s charismatic leadership. Kim Jong-un or Chang Song-thaek are not Deng Xiaoping. In retrospect China had little luck in changing Kim Jong-il’s mind. A research project we did at the Center for Strategic and International Studiescharted all of the visits by Kim Jong-il to China since 1980 and all of the places he was taken by his Chinese hosts. Computer factories, cellphone factories and fiber optics plants were among the many efforts by China to persuade Kim Jong-il to reform, but with no success. It won’t be any easier with his son. In fact, brittle dictatorships like North Korea can’t contemplate reform and opening when it is in the middle of a power transition.
Third, every Chinese expert on the DPRK that I have spoken to has openly expressed concern about the longer-term stability of the post-Kim Jong-il leadership. There are many concerns: can he rule after April 15, when presumably any preparations that Kim Jong-il might have made will have been finished? What will happen when he makes his first decision? What if he makes a mistake? These are natural questions to ask about any new leadership, and I am sure they are being asked within Beijing today.
Finally, while China vociferously called for the U.S. and the South to reengage with the DPRK prior to Kim Jong-il’s death. Since then, Beijing has been conspicuously silent and has not pushed for diplomacy with the same vigor amid its calls for everyone to remain “restrained.” This, to me, is yet another sign that Beijing has little information.
Those who see stability since Kim’s death and then extrapolate that things seem okay, are overly optimistic. We forget that we are now only one month into this new phase in North Korea, which is hardly a long period of time. Two transitional governments in South Korean political history were in power longer than one month before they were overtaken by military coups. Governments in Europe as well, such as Turkey, have experienced transitional rule for upwards of five to seven months before they fell from power. Chinese anxiety will continue to run high in the Year of the Dragon.
*The author is a professor of government at Georgetown University and senior adviser at the CSIS in Washington, D.C.
by Victor Cha