The real power behind North Korea
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao accompanies Premier of Democratic People's Republic of Korea Choe Yong Rim to view a guard of honour during a welcoming ceremony inside the Great Hall of the People on September 26, 2011 in Beijing, China. (Getty Images)
January 13th, 2012
01:41 PM ET

The real power behind North Korea

Editor's Note: Neil K. Shenai is doctoral candidate in International Political Economy at Johns Hopkins University SAIS, writing his dissertation on the global financial crisis. Visit his blog here and follow him on Twitter. Kevin Kim is a Research Fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS, where he is an Editor of the SAIS Review

By Neil K. Shenai and Kevin Y. Kim - Special to CNN

In the weeks following Kim Jong-il’s death, many North Korea observers questioned whether his third son and chosen heir, Kim Jong-un, could successfully consolidate power in the wake of his father’s death. According to this view, understanding what happens inside of North Korea is instrumental in forecasting its behavior.

While this exercise is potentially fruitful, trying to speculate about the domestic politics of North Korea remains guesswork – the DPRK is notoriously opaque, leaving analysts little room for forming reliable projections.

And while Kim Jong-un’s power struggle will undoubtedly influence North Korea’s foreign policy going forward, we believe that North Korea’s actions are more dependent on the structural dynamic of the international system than on its own domestic politics. To understand North Korea, we must analyze it in its international context. When considered in this light, it is clear that North Korea’s chief patron, the People’s Republic of China, will largely determine the DPRK’s future.

While American observers routinely denigrate China’s support of the Kim regime as immoral, myopic, and antiquated, such a view neglects the inherent appeal of maintaining the North Korean status quo among China’s foreign policy elites.

According to the Chinese perspective, support for the Kim dynasty helps China achieve both security and continued prosperity for its people. Indeed, it should not surprise us that China is unwilling to forgo these twin goals – the raison d’etre of the Chinese Communist Party – in the name of idealism and morality. We believe that Chinese support for the Kim regime stems from two underlying logics.

First, a destabilized North Korea challenges China’s primary objective of maintaining internal stability to promote economic growth. Despite the obvious evils of the Kim regime, the Chinese prefer some form of hierarchical control of North Korea to the inevitable anarchy that would result from swift and unexpected fall of the Kim regime.

Without a functioning state in North Korea, many of North Korea’s approximately six million impoverished citizens would be deprived of their already-meager provisions, and, as a result, would likely cross the Yalu River into China to flee the chaos ensuing a regime collapse. Beijing rightfully believes that this mass inflow of North Koreans would endanger social stability in Northeast China and disturb the economic progress of the region. While it remains impossible to correctly divine the exact number of refugees or the nature of these cross-border flows if and when the Kim regime collapses, China is not eager to test this scenario, especially when it has so many concerns much closer to home.

Second, sudden change in North Korea has the potential to drag many of the world’s premier powers, including the United States, China, Russia, and Japan, into unintended conflict, much like the Balkans prior to World War I. To prevent loose nuclear weapons in the wake of a North Korean collapse, experts estimate that searching and securing North Korea’s fissile material and delivery devices could require upward of 300,000 troops to maintain domestic security and to safeguard North Korea’s nuclear program.

In the event of a North Korean collapse, South Korea, China, and the United States would primarily share a strategic concern to secure North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. While the U.S. military is best equipped to handle this process, it is unlikely that Beijing, already feeling encircled by American air, sea and land capabilities in the Pacific, would tolerate such an American military presence so close to their border.

Furthermore, either Seoul or Beijing could use a situation of uncertainty to aggrandize their territorial claims on the Korean peninsula. Without clear coordination among all three parties, a classic great power political struggle could provoke a spiral of mistrust, uncertainty, and conflict in Northeast Asia. To secure North Korea’s nuclear program, massive military mobilization would further escalate tension and volatility in a region that has four nuclear-armed states and three of the world’s four largest economies. For this reason, Beijing will always prefer stability to rapid and uncertain change.

If both Beijing and Washington engage in brinksmanship over North Korea, the uncertainty would not only endanger China’s plan for a “peaceful rise,” but it could also hurl the international system into chaos. Russia and Japan – both major powers in the region with a stake in the Korean peninsula – would be forced to choose sides, implementing policies that best served their national interests, and this would simply add even more fuel to the fire. Despite protestations to the contrary, both China and the United States likely see a preservation of the Kim dynasty status quo as strategically preferable alternative to the ambiguity inherent to its collapse.

Given these stakes, we should not be surprised to see continued Chinese support for North Korea. In many ways, Kim Jong-un could provide a more viable strategic partner than his father. His young age, coupled with his potentially tenuous hold on domestic power, could force him to seek external patrons to maintain his status and control in North Korea. China can use his position of vulnerability to enhance their interests in the region, which includes maintenance of the Kim regime and ideally some semblance of economic growth to undergird a process of gradual modernization on Chinese terms. And while such an outcome might be decried in the West, it still might be better than the alternatives.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Neil K. Shenai and Kevin Y. Kim.

soundoff (35 Responses)
  1. Hahahahahahaha

    North Korea has no power. Hahahahahahahahaha

    January 13, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Reply
    • derrrrrrr

      We have 50k troops around Iran right now in land and on sea because of their nuclear program. They don't even have a nuclear weapon. North Korea does. Seems like more power than most eh?

      February 10, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Reply
    • never had a chance

      North Korea never had power North Korea never had a chance at power.

      March 7, 2012 at 12:28 pm | Reply
  2. Lukas

    Very intriguing article! The media apparatus in the western world loves to comment on eventual regime collapse in the DPRK without clearly mentioning and/or understanding the power relationship at hand (between China/North Korea). Unless Kim Jung Un reveals himself to be wholly incompetent, the issue of the irrationality and bizarre actions of the DPRK will persist.

    January 13, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Reply
  3. k

    Good grief. Analysis that is "a day late and a dollar short" - it merely re-states in more detail what has already been cited in dozens if not hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles. Is this the best that the vaunted CNN, with its worldwide reach, can do?

    January 13, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Reply
    • orly

      k- tell that to the economist.

      January 13, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Reply
      • never had a chance

        the ecnomy wouldn't listen never has never will we don't stand a chance but we try any way hoping to make a diference morons.

        March 7, 2012 at 12:31 pm |
  4. j. von hettlingen

    It was a mistake that the new South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, ended his predecessor's "sunshine policy" of rapprochement with Pyongjang.

    January 13, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      The North maintains one of the world's largest standing armies and militarism pervades everyday life. The regime members are being minded to preserve the status quo.

      January 13, 2012 at 5:09 pm | Reply
      • j. von hettlingen

        Pyongyang's nuclear threat sparked a debate in Tokyo on allowing its military the option to launch a pre-emptive strike if fear of a missile attack were imminent.

        January 13, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
      • j. von hettlingen

        A nuclear N. Korea could also trigger an arms race in East Asia. Hence it's important to resume the six-party talks.

        January 13, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • Bruce

      The sunshine policy saw millions of dollars go to North Korea, and a Nuclear bomb test (successful) in 2006. There were absolutely no concessions. Kim Jong Il was milking South Korea. There has been little to no difference pre and post Sunshine policy, except now North Korea isn't getting free money for more bombs from South Korea any more.

      January 14, 2012 at 2:24 am | Reply
  5. John Anderson

    So this it what passes for an American education, you could not be more wrong. The people of the North will not flee after a collapse unless there is a civil war which is very unlikely. China does not want the chinese people to see the fall of a communist state and than get any ideas about their own country. The US does not want the status quo to continue, the US would like the North to fall. North Korea now is an unstable nuclear state, how is that worth preserving. South Korea is not going to make territorial claims on China, are you insane. Read the DailyNK it is the best source about what is going on in the North.

    January 14, 2012 at 3:25 am | Reply
    • Spelunker

      I agree. Why would North Koreans go north if the regime collapsed? They don't speak Chinese and can't get work or school enrollment for their kids in China. South Korea could facilitate immediate reunification with a regime collapse and the refugees in China would skate back across the frozen Tumen River to return for their homeland's reconstruction.

      January 15, 2012 at 11:34 am | Reply
    • Cody

      Why do you think regime collapse wouldn't result in Civil War? You think the remnants of this political party would feel bad shedding blood to retain their power? The vacuum would force them to either grab power, or risk it being taken. South Korea and China would step in and try to fill that void.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Reply
  6. discussionofviews

    The situation in North Korea, must be tenuous, and not the least for the North Korean regime. Do they want to continue in the same vein of the past, into the future? I don't think so. No regime, however brutal, wants to see the population of the state in a near starvation condition. So, what is stopping the North Korean government, to take better mrasures? The people of North Korea will welcome any positive change. The problem is, North Korea does not have a middle class. It has the ruling class, and the peasant class, and the people who live in cities. What can North Korea, if it so chooses, metamorphose into, in this situation?

    January 15, 2012 at 11:15 am | Reply
  7. Benedict

    The underlinig problems that face North Korea are as a result of the policies of the late Kim Il Dong and his father before him,a fact known to the rest of the world. To worsen the matter,the regime has chosen the path of nuclear armament to act as buffer to the unending conflict with the US and South Korea.It's not really surprising that Chins choose to keep the status quo in order to keep a aura of stability. It remains to be seen what the Chinese will do about their nuclear weapons?!

    January 16, 2012 at 7:30 am | Reply
  8. Uncle Bob

    While bad economic policies are one great pillar of blame for conditions in North Korea.The sanctions they have lived under for years,plus even without sanctions,western countries not wanting to trade with them.Are the second great pillar of blame for conditions there.

    February 9, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Reply
  9. never had a chance

    Never has North Korea thought it had more power and the fact is it still has no power at all we as americans have as much power as we want but North Koreans don't they don't have the balls to over throw they're leader but they can fight South Korea no problem well theey wouldn't fight America becuase we got the black in charge now.BLACK POWER!!!!!

    March 7, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Reply
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    April 13, 2012 at 6:35 am | Reply
  11. Bogner mit Kapuze Weiß Bequem Deutschland

    What's interesting is that Simon and all his friends have always taken the Mickey out of each other so it's not a surprise that he is alright with a show which mercilessly teases him like the X Factor musical.
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    December 13, 2015 at 10:48 pm | Reply

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