By this point, most have probably heard the news that Kim Jong-il is dead, and seen the countless videos of mourning citizens in hysterics. In the wake of the North Korean leader’s death, pundits and governments have been scrambling to reassess their strategy toward the hermit country. Most fundamentally, international observers are concerned with questions of the North Korean government’s future stability and the continuities and changes over which Kim Jong-un will preside.
Kim Jong-un remains an elusive figure since his sudden emergence in the international spotlight last year as Kim Jong-il’s named successor. The unknowns surrounding his personality as well as the stability of the transition of power are issues that plague any attempts to analyze the future of the Korean peninsula.
One variable that can be taken into account is the enormous sway that China wields over North Korea, regardless of what happens internally in the hermit state. Although the exact figures of how much aid China provides to North Korea are difficult to determine, we do know that the figure is likely in the hundreds of millions of dollars and that China accounts for 80% of North Korean trade. China has a vested interest in North Korea due to its strategic location and the domestic destabilizing effect that a regime collapse on the peninsula would cause in China. Because of these considerations, Beijing is unwilling to allow the regime to fend for itself.
Professor Malcolm Cook, the Dean of the School of International Studies at Flinders University in Australia, believes that Kim Jong-un’s youth and political inexperience is set to cast North Korea into a new era of geopolitical instability. What he means by this is that North Korea will continue to aggressively pursue its nuclear program, while keeping up its aggressive stance toward the South. The younger Kim, he argues, lacks the political capital to change course from his father’s hard-line policies.
This instability-focused scenario underestimates the importance of China’s influence in North Korea. China’s rationale for its North Korean policy stems from two ideas – first, that China is opposed to the prospect of a united Korea with healthy ties to both Japan and U.S., and second, that China wants a politically stable North Korean state. This second concern would hold China to be as eager as any other nation to prevent North Korea from gaining a nuclear warhead, as evidenced by its recent push for the resumption of six party talks. Beijing has also continuously pressured North Korea to enact economic reforms in the direction of reforms enacted in the Deng years of the early 1980s. Both of these actions show that North Korea’s most important ally will do all that it can to prevent tensions in the peninsula, while keeping in place an agenda of gradual economic change. Considering the fact that Beijing essentially bankrolls the current regime, it will likely get its way in these regards.
China has already shown how the influence it has over North Korea can be used to promote policy change. In an perceived effort to get North Korea to return to six party talks this past September, China completely cut off oil exports to North Korea (dependent on China for up to 90% of its oil), effectively shutting down the country. However, North Korea has also been shown to be capable and willing to openly defy Chinese wishes by testing ballistic missiles this past July despite stern Chinese warnings.
Although Kim Jong-un might not have the political clout to greatly deviate from his father’s ‘military first‘ policies, he also cannot effectively rule without maintaining good relations with China due to that country’s economic stranglehold over the smaller nation. In the absence of Kim Jong-il’s strong leadership, the pendulum will now likely swing towards economic reform and the embrace of a Chinese economic model that has been demonstrated effective. With North Korean leadership no longer politically cohesive enough to openly defy China, the Korean peninsula is due to become more stable under Beijing’s heightened influence.