The script was meant to go like this: Beijing would back dynastic succession in Pyongyang in return for North Korea under Kim Jong Il’s son, Kim Jong Un, adopting gradual economic reforms along the Chinese model. That way, China’s erratic and impoverished neighbor would become a more stable political and economic ally, and the threat of millions of starving North Korean refugees flooding across the border into northeast China in the event of the collapse of the Pyongyang regime would be alleviated.
Unfortunately for Beijing, Kim Jong Un has lost the plot.
Relations between North Korea and its only friend in the world have hit rock bottom. Beijing is furious. Chinese state media have given unusual prominence to the Chinese fishermen who were seized in North Korea earlier this month and returned with tales of beatings and starvation at the hands of their captors. That was a rare public embarrassment of Pyongyang by Beijing, which for years has defied world opinion in repatriating North Korean refugees caught in China knowing that they and their families will receive similar harsh treatment once returned.
Beijing has other reasons for its displeasure. North Korea is not only not keeping it side of a bargain but it is also not showing the respect China believes it deserves for being its long-suffering political and economic lifeline. Pyongyang didn’t give Beijing advance warning about the deal it struck with Washington in February for American food aid in return for apparent concessions on missile and nuclear programs. It then brushed aside China’s objections to conducting a rocket test, objections made unusually publicly. Beijing even backed a resolution condemning the test in the UN security council, a forum in which it previously backed all sorts of North Korean nonsense. That the test failed so spectacularly–and stood in such sharp contrast to the success of China’s space program–was a cause of a great deal of quiet satisfaction in Beijing.
China has been getting increasingly irritated by its old ally for some time. Bilateral relations are, unusually with China’s foreign policy, handled on a party-to-party rather than a government-to-government basis. While there is historical logic to the practice, it is becoming increasingly anachronistic. China’s incoming generation of leaders were no more than babes in arms, if that, at the time of the Korean War. The Pyongyang regime, where second generation leadership prevails, aren’t comrades in arms. They are a deadweight dragging on China’s increasing global role and an erratic threat to regional security that complicates relations with the U.S., Japan and South Korea for no very great advantage.
Inexplicable and unpredictable provocation was Kim Jong Il’s way. Kim Jong Un may be trying to show himself to be his father’s son. He is likely egged on by generals who threatened by economic reform. 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. The military-industrial complex is pretty much the North Korean economy.
The poverty of the rest of the country concerns Beijing even more. Millions of starving North Koreans fleeing a failed state into northeast China constitutes the worst-case scenario. The current crackdown on illegal North Koreans in China and on the organizations who help them should be seen in this light.
Beijing’s long-term strategy is to draw North Korea into its economic orbit, with an assumption that a some point foreign policy will follow as the economics start to make cooperation rather than provocation North Korea’s underlying interest in dealing with its neighbors. They have evolved in the more than a half century since the Korean war in a way North Korea has not. China now sees South Korea and Japan as frenemies, potential free-trade partners as well as allies of the U.S. to be contained. Kim Jong Un, however, is still gambling that he can rely on China’s continuing support for as long as stability on the Korean peninsula is more important to Beijing than the collapse of his regime.
If he is testing the limits of Beijing’s support–as good a guess as any given how little is known about what actually goes on in the highest echelons of the Pyongyang regime–he is playing a dangerous game, albeit one learned from his father. Kim Jong Il, however, was adept at calibrating the risks. Kim Jong Un may be too inexperienced to do so. He may particularly be miscalculating China’s opportunity cost from being seen to be beholden to Pyongyang: a diminution of its credibility as a regional or world power. Beijing still looks after its old friends, but not unconditionally. Beijing may have changed more than Kim Jong Il and the rest of the power elite in the Hermit Kingdom realize.