North Korea’s Succession Poses New Challenges – Part II

Impoverished and hermitic, North Korea’s nuclear weapons and erratic behavior have long been a headache for the region. This YaleGlobal series examines the challenges that North Korea poses for the international community in the wake of its succession drama. In the second article, Korea policy analyst Scott Snyder points out that, from all appearances, China has replaced the US as a foreign-policy priority for the North. Rationality and consistency are not hallmarks for the troubled state, and the regime’s survival depends on China for energy, food and a newly proposed cross-border growth strategy. The international community expects China to exert leverage for reform, stability and denuclearization. Chinese foreign-policy moves instead suggest political and economic stability as a priority rather than denuclearization, essentially countermanding US-led efforts at sanctions. Six Party Talks may resume, but many remain skeptical that the regime will agree to dismantle its nuclear program. – YaleGlobal

North Korea’s Succession Poses New Challenges – Part II

Despite its distaste for North Korean policy, China is loath to pressure the intransigent state
Scott Snyder
Monday, October 4, 2010

Kim Jong Il and Hu Jintao
'We are with you': North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (left) with China's President Hu Jintao on a visit to China, before North Korea's announcement of succession

SEOUL: Ten years ago, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea, snubbed China’s defense minister on the 50th anniversary of the entry of the Chinese people’s volunteers into the Korean War: Instead, Kim Jong Il hosted the first-ever visit by a US secretary of state, Madeleine Albright. A mirror image of that snub was recently delivered to a former American president, marking North Korea’s changed circumstances.

The snub to Beijing in 2000 arguably underscored the depth of North Korea’s desire to balance its dependency on China by pursuing diplomatic normalization with the United States. Kim Jong Il coveted a visit by President Bill Clinton, but the clock ran out on that possibility as a result of the protracted uncertainty over the winner of the 2000 US presidential elections. Contrary to expectations of the involved parties, the Albright visit in combination with a visit to the White House months earlier by a senior representative of the Korean People’s Army in retrospect marked a high point for US-DPRK relations.

Kim Jong Il’s August snub of Jimmy Carter in favor of an urgent trip to China to meet with PRC President Hu Jintao at the end of August reveals much about North Korea’s current circumstances. Kim’s meeting with Hu in Changchun occurred less than four months after their previous meeting last May in Beijing. Despite the Obama administration’s efforts to distance itself from the Carter visit, speculation was rife that the visit might have a policy impact and open new dialogue channels with the United States and South Korea, as was the case when the former president met regime founder Kim Il Sung in June of 1994. The Obama administration’s concerns about the Carter visit, however, turned out to be misplaced. The differing circumstances surrounding Carter’s two trips to North Korea underscore a strategic reversal of North Korean diplomatic priorities: North Korea is increasingly dependent on China and no longer appears to attach the same priority to improving relations with the United States.

The Hu-Kim summit in August provided a test of whether China can convert North Korea’s dependency into leverage in favor of promoting North Korean stability, reform, opening or denuclearization. China’s official press coverage of the content of the August 30th meeting in Changchun emphasized three main issues: a) the need to maintain close high-level contact between the leaders of China and North Korea, b) the desirability of advancing trade and economic cooperation, presumably with North Korea drawing lessons from and adopting Chinese-style economic opening and reform, c) strengthened “strategic communication” on regional and international developments, especially in light of apparent rising tensions between Beijing and Washington. In addition, Chinese state media reported that Kim Jong Il reaffirmed his commitment to the Six Party Talks, the denuclearization talks that had broken down earlier due to Pyongyang’s intransigence. The visit stimulated intense speculation in South Korea on whether North Korea sought China’s blessing for Kim’s apparent efforts to establish his third son, Kim Jong Un, as successor.

The Hu-Kim summit marks the latest in a series of Sino-DPRK efforts to strengthen the bilateral political and economic relationship, but also highlights growing contradictions among three distinct approaches following the Cheonan incident: Chinese-promoted bilateral reforms, multilateral denuclearization negotiations and US-led international sanctions. The interplay among these three approaches in the aftermath of the Cheonan incident reflects increasing mistrust among regional players and concern over the long-term future of the Korean peninsula.

The result of the Changchun summit suggests that China is pursuing a more active bilateral approach toward North Korean economic reform and opening by promoting a cross-border growth strategy within China’s Jilin province. This stepped-up bilateral approach prioritizes stability over denuclearization as China’s primary objective in its bilateral relations with the North. Instead of simply showing Kim Jong Il the fruits of China’s reform and opening with the hopes that he will follow – as done during previous visits – China appears ready to take a variety of measures to induce North Korea’s opening as a condition of its economic “bailout” of the North. One objective of that effort is to establish the external conditions necessary for North Korean economic reforms to succeed. China can take this opportunity precisely because North Korea is short of cash and desperately seeking foreign investment as a primary means by which to achieve its goal of emerging as a “strong and prosperous” state by 2012. It’s not clear whether Hu sought or received specific quid pro quos designed to curb North Korean provocative policies or adventurism as part of discussions with Kim.

In combination with the bilateral approach, China has renewed efforts to restart the Six Party Talks. Chinese special envoy Wu Dawei has made the rounds of capitals of countries involved in the process following the Hu-Kim summit and his own visit to Pyongyang in mid-August. However, in the absence of a stable inter-Korean relationship, of an effective channel for US-DPRK bilateral contacts and of evidence that Sino-DPRK ties can help coax North Korea to pursue denuclearization, there is widespread pessimism that Six Party Talks can play an effective role. The Cheonan incident and China’s response, essentially turning a blind eye to Pyongyang’s provocative action, have engendered greater skepticism regarding China’s capacity to lead the talks to achieve real progress in denuclearization. Moreover, the difference in Chinese and South Korean responses to the Cheonan incident exposed the widest gaps in Sino-ROK relations since the two countries normalized relations in 1992. 

Chinese attempts to promote externally-led economic reforms are in direct contradiction with US-led efforts to impose sanctions on the North, which in effect push North Korea further into China’s arms. Chinese engagement provides a safety valve and a guarantee to the North that it need not fear the recent announcement of stepped-up US bilateral sanctions. It also suggests that the threat of US sanctions against North Korea is increasingly likely to be a paper tiger. US efforts to promote regional cohesion as a means by which to shape the external environment and pressure the North have also been set back by Chinese efforts to ensure North Korea’s economic stabilization.

The wild card for all parties remains the working of North Korea’s recently announced leadership succession. North Korea is unlikely to have sought a direct blessing for succession of Kim Jong Un from China, and statements by Chinese following the North Korean Workers’ Party Conference have expressed a willingness to work with the party’s “new highest leading body,” but scrupulously avoid mentioning Kim Jong Un or any other newly appointed leader by name.

The Chinese bet on party-to-party ties with North Korea as a means by which to perpetuate North Korea’s survival, combined with North Korea’s apparent efforts to revive the party as an important institutional component of leadership consolidation, suggests the strengthening of a channel for Chinese influence in the North that’s not available to other parties. How effectively this channel can be strengthened will be one factor that will determine the extent of Chinese influence on the Korean peninsula in the future and North Korea’s behavior towards its neighbors and on broader policies of global concern.


Scott Snyder is director of the Center for US-Korea Policy at the Asia Foundation and adjunct senior fellow for Korean studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect positions of the institutions with which he is affiliated.
Copyright © 2010 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization