China has spent much of the past year or so doing what it can to ensure stability in the event of a leadership transition in North Korea. Now that moment has come, with the sudden announcement that Kim Jong Il’s late 20s-something youngest son, Kim Jong Un (second right in the North Korean state news agency picture above), has succeeded his father (first right) following what was said to be a fatal heart attack to the long ailing Dear Leader on Saturday.
The elder Kim, who had been in poor health since suffering a serious stroke in 2008, had also been preparing his dynastic succession. Last year, he designated Kim Jong Un as his successor and had him appointed to senior party and military positions. Kim Jong Un’s uncle, Kim Jong Il’s brother-in-law, Jang Song Thaek, had been grooming his nephew and will likely act as the still inexperienced and untested Kim Jong Un’s mentor. As vice-chairman of the National Defence Commission (NDC), though he came up through the Party, not military, and the most powerful man in the country not named Kim, Jang will continue to be the power behind the throne for now.
A decade earlier, the elder Kim had given the military via the NDC the leading role in domestic politics even as the family remained the godhead of the totalitarian power structure. If the military remains committed to this arrangement–and there is no indication at this early point that it isn’t–then stability should persist even as the political elite assess and adjusts to the new axis of power–and Kim Jong Un consolidates his position.
Where the cracks could open up–and where they cross one of Beijing’s core interests–is over economic reform. At Beijing’s prompting, Kim Jong Il had started to show some interest in reforming the bleak wasteland of the North Korean economy, though experiments with private markets and currency reform backfired. To what extent will the military be open to the economic development that the starving country needs? As with the PLA in China, while not all generals are ideological hardliners, like all North Korea’s political elite, they have vested interests in the military-industrial complex. This includes the country’s international arms trading business and the companies to which North Korea’s 10-year economic development plan has been assigned for implementation. Those could be challenged by any meaningful economic reforms. Unlike in China, there is not much of an economy outside the ruling elite’s sway where reform could be got underway, or to create alternative honeypots.
The bargain it is assumed Kim Jong Il struck with Beijing was that it would support an orderly dynastic succession in return for a move towards Chinese-style economic reform in North Korea and an expansion of trade, including mineral extraction and exports to China. Most immediately, Chinese firms have expanded their presence in the special economic zones on the North Korean side of the two countries’ border (run by companies controlled by the North Korean Party and military elite), and improving road links from Jilin.
Beijing also wants an end to the sort of provocative and potentially destabilizing international incidents that have studded North Korea’s relationships with South Korea, the U.S. and Japan. One sign of how the military wants to play North Korea’s relationship with China now will be how it handles the potential resumption of six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program. U.S. officials had recently discussed an exchange of food aid for concessions on uranium enrichment. While Kim’s death will put all such talks on hold for now, whether China gets to take up the reins at the appropriate moment, will provide one indication of how the relationship stands.
At the same time, North Korea has become less useful to Beijing as a buffer state between it and South Korea, Japan and the U.S. China relationships with those countries have been transformed since the Korean War half a century ago. Nor does North Korea occupy the same position in the sentiments of younger Chinese officials as it does in those of older ones for whom the Korean War is not ancient history, and who see themselves having more in common with the progress South Koreans has made than with impoverished, starving North Korea. That is especially true of foreign ministry officials who, unusually, have to play second fiddle to the Party when it comes to North Korea policy.
Next year is the centenary of the birth of the Great Leader, Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung. That offers a potential buffer of stability. It also provides a deep well of dynastic heritage from which Kim Jong Un can draw legitimacy as he consolidates his new position, though Beijing would have hoped Kim the father would have lived long enough to do the drawing. Most countries would welcome stability until at least then. Beyond that it is in the interest of everyone, save perhaps for the North Korean military, that the country does change. Beijing, itself under new leadership from 2012, will use both carrot and stick to promote that, continuing to press for economic reform and access for its trading and mining companies, and making it clear that North Korea can’t expect any protection in the event of acts of international provocation.
China’s official message of condolence on Kim Jong Il’s death was a reflection of that, fraternal but measured. It may credibly be read as China treating Kim Jong Un’s North Korea as a normal neighbor, rather than a blood brother–if the Kim dynasty can ever be said to be normal. A North Korea with close economic ties to China is what Beijing sees as the best chance of creating a stable and restrained country that doesn’t inexplicable and unexpectedly provoke its neighbors. Myanmar is a model for the relationship, if a slightly less perfect one than before but still better and less scary than what it has now.
Footnote: The news portal NetEase has 59 evocative pictures spanning Kim Jong Il’s life.