December 21st, 2011
01:37 AM ET

Hill: Changing China's mind on North Korea

Editor's Note: Christopher R. Hill, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, was U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, South Korea, Macedonia, and Poland, U.S. special envoy for Kosovo, a negotiator of the Dayton Peace Accords, and chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea from 2005-2009. He is now Dean of the Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. For more from Christopher R. Hill, visit Project Syndicate or follow it on Facebook and Twitter.

By Christopher R. HillProject Syndicate

In one sense, the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il changes everything. It is by no means clear, for example, that Kim’s coddled youngest son, Kim Jong-un - now hailed as the “Great Successor,” but singularly unprepared to lead - will ultimately succeed his father in anything but name.

Working in Kim Jong-un’s favor is his striking resemblance to his grandfather, Kim Il-song, who, strangely, held a certain charisma for North Koreans. Looks aside, Kim III will need a lot of help; in the meantime, we can expect further consolidation by the Korean People’s Army of its leadership of the country. Even more than in the past, we must expect the unexpected in North Korea. Above all, the West must work closely with China. In that sense, nothing has changed.

Any conversation with Chinese officials nowadays leads to the same conclusion: China wants to restart the Six-Party Talks aimed at persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear-weapons program. The problem is that, despite commitment to the talks from all six participants - China, the United States, South Korea, Japan, Russia, and even North Korea in recent months (a nominal pledge that is unlikely to be changed as a result of Kim Jong-il’s passing) – the results so far are insufficient to sustain the process.

Reenergizing the talks will require renewed focus on taking steps to achieve their ends. Unfortunately, China, the party with the greatest leverage over North Korea, seems least committed to doing what is required.

North Korea is China’s neighbor, and political or social instability there is not taken lightly. It has often been said that China fears a possible refugee flow. But that is just the start.

China’s attitude toward its belligerent, impoverished neighbor is actually very complex. While there are a great many modern, business-oriented Chinese anxious to build the country’s future, there are also those who see in their plucky little neighbor something strangely admirable. Resisting foreign “pressure” is a continuing theme in Chinese history, and who does it better than the North Koreans, who seem to be prepared to fight to their last starving child?

Chinese officials, who are committed, above all, to maintaining order at home, must lose sleep asking themselves what an implosion of North Korea’s Communist party-state would mean for them. This is not so much a foreign-policy issue as it is an issue concerning China’s internal politics. The closer a country is to China, the more China views it through the lens of domestic issues, particularly internal-security concerns. Would the withering away of North Korea’s party-state affect the debate within China about the future of its own brand of communism? Many Chinese officials don’t want to find out.

But perhaps the greatest difficulty worrying the Chinese stems from an underappreciated but familiar theme in international relations: “old think” - the inability to comprehend, much less address, new realities.

North Korea is a fragile state, even more so following Kim Jong-il’s death. For starters, it is not a national homeland, a characteristic that keeps many failing states from actually failing. The homeland is the Republic of Korea, located to the south, beyond the vistas of razor wire and well-tended minefields. North Korean propaganda has always tried to represent the country as “the true” Korea, where culture, language, and everything else is supposedly on offer in its purest form. But that argument is as threadbare as the rest of the country.

The Chinese recognize that North Korea cannot survive in its current form, and have sought to encourage its leaders to embrace economic reform without political change. But, with prosperous South Korea so close, any relaxation of borders would mean no one would be left to rebuild the country. That is why the Chinese road to reform is not available to North Korea. Consider the determination of North Korean refugees, who suffer the most perilous journeys to freedom in the world, but keep making them.

So why does China persist in the tortured fiction that there is some kind of future for a reformed North Korea? The answer seems to lie in the concern that North Korea’s demise would amount to a victory for the U.S. and a defeat for China. After all, the successor state on the Korean peninsula would be South Korea, a treaty ally of the U.S.

The U.S. should be prepared to make clear to the Chinese that any change in political arrangements on the Korean peninsula would not result in a strategic loss to China. For example, while the U.S. should never bargain with the Chinese over America’s defense obligations to South Korea, it could engage the Chinese on some assurances that no U.S. forces would ever be stationed above the 38th parallel. Indeed, given the current mood in the U.S., it might be difficult, in the context of Korean unification, to continue to station any U.S. troops on the peninsula at all, let alone along the Yalu River.

Moreover, the U.S. and South Korea have various plans for dealing with the humanitarian consequences of a North Korean collapse. So why not share them with the Chinese? Needless to say, such talks would be sensitive, but so would a North Korean collapse that was not preceded by a serious exchange of views on the subject.

Sooner or later, such a quiet but deeper dialogue needs to start. Given the uncertain future that it portends, Kim Jong-il’s passing might be the perfect moment.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Christopher R. Hill. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011

soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. Realist

    What's never mentioned when talking about N. Korea is the fact that they are running World War II type death camps. When some is arrested so are their children and their parents, all of who are sent to death camps where the average life expectancy is 3 years. No one comes out alive. It is estimated that there are 200,000 people in these death camps today.

    December 21, 2011 at 2:28 am | Reply
  2. dhaslam

    Hopefully it will mean a big change internally for the country. Kim Jong-un is two generations younger than his father and has spent several years in Switzerland. Economic conditions have deteriorated a lot since foreign aid decreased. Reduced import of fertilizers has meant that the population is near starving but with some external assistance it should be possible to greatly improve food production and general living standards as well.

    December 21, 2011 at 6:53 am | Reply
  3. j. von hettlingen

    Big brother China doesn't always have an easy time with his little one, who sometimes defies him. BBC reported an underground economy thriving in Pyongjang, the capital which is North Korea's window to the world.

    December 21, 2011 at 7:36 am | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    Delicacies and consumer goods smuggled in from China are sold in the black markets to those who can afford them.

    December 21, 2011 at 7:44 am | Reply
  5. j. von hettlingen

    China regards it as a way to open North Korea for private economy, but the regime in Pyongjang sees entrepreneurialsim as a betrayal of socialism.

    December 21, 2011 at 7:47 am | Reply
  6. tommy

    kim jong il may be dead but kim jong hill is still parasitically latching on. fraudulent political opportunist and careerist whose arguments go along with wherever the dc consensus winds flow, including a rhetorical commitment to humanitarian concerns

    December 21, 2011 at 12:53 pm | Reply
  7. Eugene Levich

    China's ability to influence politics in N. Korea may be as limited as America's. Even during the imperial period, when Korea was a tributary state of China, the Koreans ran their own country and kept Chinese officials visiting there on a very tight leash. The Korean leadership (whoever they may be) are unlikely to kowtow to Beijing any more than they did in the 1700s.

    December 21, 2011 at 1:55 pm | Reply
  8. james

    good points. but, chris hill is a liar and he will never outlive that.

    December 22, 2011 at 3:40 pm | Reply

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