With regard to North Korea, the Obama Administration and China have been united by a common purpose : the avoidance of trouble. Despite some tensions between Washington and Beijing, the primary U.S. concern — containing Pyongyang’s nuclear proliferation and aggressive behavior — was not fundamentally at odds with that of the Chinese, which was to hold the regime together. There was too much at stake, and too few incentives, to do much more.
That confluence was never more than a short-term arrangement, however, and it has just been terminated with the death of North Korea’s ruler Kim Jong-Il. Ever since rumors of a debilitating stroke surfaced in 2008, Korea watchers have been speculating about transition scenarios : a military coup ? A power vacuum ? Or a sudden collapse, in which rogue elements get their hands on the DPRK’s nuclear arsenal ? The most likely version was less apocalyptic, but of huge importance for the balance of power in the region : China using its economic and political capital to ensure a smooth transition of power to Kim Jong-Il’s chosen successor. Enter Kim Jong-Un, the youngest and most favored son.
That China was involved in the succession arrangements is evident. In the last two years of his life, Kim Jong-Il made several trips across the border seeking Beijing’s political support and its money. He introduced Kim Jong-Un to the North Korean people, showcasing him at significant state events and promoting him to the rank of four star general at the tender age of 26 (or 27, according to some sources). But Chinese and North Korean leaders were expecting a year or two more to shore up the succession. And China had hoped to have a while longer to encourage the Hermit Kingdom to open up its economy.
In the last years of Kim Jong-Il’s reign, the level of Chinese involvement in North Korea’s economy made the country’s elites acutely nervous. Their governing ideology is “Juche,” or self-reliance, and successive North Korean leaders have staked their legitimacy on their ability to keep out foreign influence and avoid being a pawn in the games of the world’s super powers. Kim Jong-Il carefully played the United States, China, and sometimes Russia against each other. Chinese strategists openly voiced frustration with the madman on the peninsula who refused to listen to economic reason, and the United States spent two decades in a seemingly cyclical game of brinksmanship.
The future of the new Kim on the block will now depend on his ability to recreate and manage that delicate balance. The world’s youngest dictator will need China to help deliver the prosperity that the North Korean people have been promised for the centennial celebrations of his grandfather Kim Il-Sung’s birth next year. But he also needs to prove that he is able to protect North Korean independence and self-determination. This will be hard, because he starts his new job with less legitimacy, less experience, and fewer loyal followers than his father had when he took the reins in 1994.
Seoul and Washington have reacted to Kim Jong-Il’s death by announcing that they will “wait and see” what happens in Pyongyang. But while the South Koreans have seen benefit in China’s efforts to encourage North Korea’s economic opening, it is clear that Beijing’s long-term goals do not align with those of Seoul. For South Korea, this is an unparalleled opportunity, perhaps even the last real chance to bring about unification. China, on the other hand, would prefer to keep North Korea as a buffer state between it and the thousands of U.S.-allied troops sitting on the demilitarized zone. So sitting back and watching while China secures its goals is not, ultimately, an acceptable option for Seoul.
Washington, meanwhile, would be happy to see a unified peninsula — but it is less likely to share South Korea’s willingness to take risks to get there. It may even be tempted to back a stability policy that would play into Chinese interests.
Yet that would be to miss a strategic opportunity. Kim Jong-Un is in a tight spot, desperately in need of cash, and anxious to balance Chinese influence. Washington and Seoul should be patient, and careful ; but they must make sure not to give Beijing carte blanche in defining the future of the peninsula. Even if unification is not currently on the cards, the United States should work with its ally South Korea to improve the prospects of it happening — and all the more because of its own deepening interests in the Pacific.