China Moves Quickly to Support North Korea

Following the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, the Chinese government has moved quickly to maintain its influence over the new regime of Kim’s son, Kim Jong-Un, in an effort to prevent instability on the Korean peninsula. The Hindu reports:

China’s biggest concern in the wake of Mr. Kim’s death, analysts said, was instability that could arise from internal succession politics — and potentially spill over across the Yalu river into northeastern China. “For China, peace and stability in North Korea is most important,” Gong Keyu, deputy director of the Centre for Asian-Pacific Studies at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies and a leading Chinese scholar on North Korea, told The Hindu in an interview.

“Our policy towards the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea [DPRK] will not change. We will insist that we really want peace and stability and denuclearisation. A concern is that South Korea, Japan and the United States may all be worried now [about stability in North Korea], but China will continue to cooperate with those countries.”

China has already indicated it will continue supporting the North, which it views as a crucial strategic buffer, with financial and food aid.

The Washington Post reports that China will likely increase economic aid to Pyongyang in the short-term:

President Hu Jintao will probably offer more economic aid to North Korea to strengthen the hand of Kim Jong Un, who must now consolidate power after his father Kim Jong Il’s death on Dec. 17, said Paul Haenle. He served as the White House National Security Council’s China director in the Bush and Obama administrations.

The cost for the U.S. and South Korea may be less Chinese attention to restarting six-party talks over North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program. Topping the list of possible Chinese objectives is avoiding unrest that could disrupt regional trade and prompt a wave of refugees to cross the 880-mile (1,416- kilometer) border it shares with North Korea.

“China sees it on two tracks,” said Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, in a phone interview. “You’ve got a denuclearization track and another track which is all about maintaining stability and ensuring the consolidation of power. The denuclearization track will be put on hold.”

Meanwhile, CCTV reports (via Euronews) that President Hu Jintao has already invited Kim Jong-Un to visit Beijing:

Looking forward to the future and China’s incoming leadership who will assume power next year, Victor Cha in the New York Times argues that China is likely to try to absorb North Korea into its own politics rather than shed it as a political liability. He further argues that the U.S. is powerless to play any substantial role in North Korea’s transition:

Any outreach to the young Mr. Kim or to other possible competitors could create more problems during the transition, and would certainly be viewed as threatening by China. Since Kim Jong-il’s stroke in 2008, the United States and South Korea have been working on contingency plans to deal with just such a situation, but they all thought they would have years, if not a decade.

The allies’ best move, then, is to wait and see what China does. Among China’s core foreign-policy principles is the maintenance of a divided Korean Peninsula, and so Beijing’s statements about preserving continuity of North Korea’s leadership should come as no surprise. Since 2008 it has drawn closer to the regime, publicly defending its leaders and investing heavily in the mineral mines on the Chinese-North Korean border.

But even as Beijing sticks close to its little Communist brother, there are intense debates within its leadership about whether the North is a strategic liability. It was one thing to back a hermetic but stable regime under Kim Jong-il; it will be harder to underwrite an untested leadership. For Xi Jinping, expected to become China’s president over the next year, the first major foreign policy decision will be whether to shed North Korea or effectively adopt it as a province.

All indications are that Beijing will pursue the latter course, in no small part because of a bias among its leadership to support the status quo, rather than to confront dramatic change. And yet “adopting” North Korea could be dramatic in itself. China may go all in, doling out early invitations and new assistance packages to the young Mr. Kim, conditioning them on promises of economic reform.

In the meantime, North Korea has closed off the Chinese border and called back North Korean workers in China so they can participate in the public mourning. Photos and videos of North Koreans dramatically mourning the death of their leader has brought to mind similar images from China upon the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, such as these posted recently by ChinaSmack.

See also a previous CDT post: “China Scrambles for Clues after Kim’s Death (Updated).”

December 20, 2011 3:24 PM
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