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.