China and the World

Bordering on crazy

End of an era: China mulls options for North Korea after Kim Jong-il

The lyrics of Pyongyang’s smash hit No Motherland Without You must have seemed a good idea 15 years ago. But the composers of North Korea’s favourite tune must now wonder how much airtime they have left.

Suddenly, their song’s booming refrain (“We cannot exist without you, Comrade Kim Jong-il! Our country cannot exist without you!”) has an ominous undertone. Time for a rewrite, perhaps.

The problem is that Kim – North Korea’s enigmatic ringmaster – is said to be seriously ill. Most analysts don’t think he will have much of a dictatorial dotage. So privately at least, the No Motherland lyricists might wonder about a different chorus. Forget Kim – it’s China that their country really can’t live without.

The problem for Beijing is that most of the Western world agrees. Critics say it should be exerting a lot more pressure on its renegade neighbour, as North Korea’s largest investor, trading partner and donor by some distance. Two successive visits from Kim Jong-il this year also highlights that he cares what Beijing thinks, especially of his succession plans for son Kim Jong-un (or the Brilliant Comrade, to admirers).

But then look at how some of Kim’s recent directives have had the Chinese scrambling for a diplomatically-measured response: the missile test last year (enough to stir even Beijing to a condemnation of a “brazen act”), the torpedoing of the South Korean frigate Cheonan in March and the artillery attacks last week on Yeonpyeong Island. There have also been revelations this month about Pyongyang’s uranium enrichment work.

The more the North Koreans act unilaterally, the more the Chinese are in a bind. Other countries can deduce one of two things: that Beijing is unwilling to bring Pyongyang into line, or that it is incapable of doing so.

What can we expect in the year ahead? Cautious, incremental change is always the preferred approach with Chinese officialdom. The big bang alternatives – North Korean regime collapse, a flood of refugees across the border and even a potentially unified Korean peninsula – sound a lot less appealing.

That means China’s standard response to North Korean mischief-making is to urge calm, and propose a return to the stalled six-party talks. It did something similar this week, as tensions grew over military exercises. But the South Koreans and the Americans are far less convinced, not wanting to return to talks until Pyongyang shows signs of making serious concessions.

Then this week, a genuine wild card: the WikiLeaks revelations that Beijing is fed up with Pyongyang’s “spoiled child” behaviour, and is prepared to cut the Kim family enterprise adrift. Speculation even that China will countenance a unified Korea as a result – not a line that many analysts have anticipated.

Is the intelligence correct? Even if not, it might turn out to be one of the few revelations to work to US advantage, in pushing Kim Jong-il to readjust his realpolitik.

Beijing’s best-case outcome is still to get everyone back around the negotiating table, either with an ailing Kim Jong-il or a new regime led by Kim Jong-un. Perhaps the North Koreans might then agree to a China-brokered decommissioning of any uranium processing work completed so far. Then there could be a step-up in aid and (if Kim Jong-il is no longer around) even a loosening of sanctions to allow Kim junior a little time to prove that he can behave better than his father.

The worst-case scenario is much darker: a full-scale internal power struggle in Pyongyang spilling over into a spell of more abrasive foreign policy acts (more missile testing, further border incidents, perhaps even a heavy-duty military confrontation with the South). Kim Jong-un could even be forced to flee (he could join his older brother in a leisurely exile of baccarat and karaoke in Macau). But the risk is that Beijing prevaricates, not wanting a beefed-up US presence in the region but unwilling to take the lead itself.

Of course, the fundamental problem is that the status quo policy now has a limited shelf life. Kim senior is on his way out. Just like the performers of No Motherland Without You, China’s diplomats will need to sing from a new hymn sheet in the months ahead.


© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Exclusively sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.