China Policy Institute: Analysis


Kim Jong-un

Reading Chinese media responses to a North Korean defection

Written by Adam Cathcart.

No matter where they are working around the world, most journalists (like aspiring novelists) love a good cloak-and-dagger story. And when it comes to occurrences more ripe for investigation, speculation and opining, there are few events more defining than the defection of a high-level diplomat from one state to its existential rival. The questions that arise from such events themselves create a kind of frisson of possibility. With apologies for the normative use of the male pronoun, we can ask: For how long had he planned his leap from one set of loyalties to another? How had he prevented discovery of his plan, and how did he escape? Was he in mortal danger? What did he know, and how much did he tell the intelligence services in the new state into whose hands he had entrusted himself? Why did he defect? And what – and who – did he leave behind?

Continue reading “Reading Chinese media responses to a North Korean defection”

Why China takes a softly-softly line on North Korea

Written by Astrid Nordin.

In the run up to its first party congress since 1980, the North Korean government increased its drive to develop nuclear weapons, raising tensions in the region. This has alarmed and angered neighbouring countries, and particularly China, whose president Xi Jinping made clear at a recent conference that China will not tolerate chaos on the Korean peninsula.

At the same time, many outsiders suggest that Beijing’s close relationship with Pyongyang means that China has a crucial role in reining in North Korea – and that it could do so if it really wanted to. Continue reading “Why China takes a softly-softly line on North Korea”

So where does North Korea go from here?

North Korea ChildrenBy Steve Tsang, published in Nottingham Post Wednesday December 28, 2011.

THE leader of the last totalitarian state, Kim Jong-il, is dead. But this is not the end of near totalitarianism in North Korea or the end of the Kim dynasty.

The new leader of North Korea will be Kim’s youngest son, Kim Jong-un, who was anointed successor and made a four star general over a year ago.

While young Kim, not quite 30, will inherit the top leadership position it does not mean he will simply succeed and carry on as his father did. He cannot.

Without a real power base or proven ability his capacity to govern is dependent on the major power brokers willing to implement the will of his father – a man who caused untold misery to a people left hungry for much of his 16 years of rule.

Among those who will play critical roles is Jang Sung-taek, deputy head of the National Defence Commission or the highest organ of power.

Jang is Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law and the chosen ‘re gent’ to ensure the smooth succession of Kim Jong-un.

But Jang is now in a position to play his own game. Will he be the loyal regent wholeheartedly dedicated to help the young general consolidate control is a big question? I will not bet on it.

The Kim dynasty will survive for a while, though for how long is anyone’s guess.

What it will do and how it will choose to develop remain uncertain and, at this stage, unknowable to the outside world.

Neither keeping the status quo nor reforming along the Chinese model is easy. Young Kim cannot replace his father and command the establishment as his father did.

Nor does he have the statute and authority to order the adopting of the Chinese approach. At the moment even young Kim cannot be sure what the future holds.

Since North Korea has a small arsenal of nuclear weapons, a record of using its military might to attract global attention, and the potential to trigger a crisis that puts China and the United States on opposing sides, we cannot afford to ignore where it goes from here.

The frustration the rest of the world has is that the future of this country is in the hands of an unproven young man with an unknown sense of responsibility and there is apparently little the outside world can do to influence it.

The general wish is that China will somehow stabilize North Korea and make young Kim behave responsibly.

Much as China should be encouraged to play a positive role to ensure North Korea will not become a de-stabilizing factor, we must realise that Beijing’s agenda and ours are not the same, apart from not wanting to seea crisis materialize in the near future.

While China did not want North Korea to acquire nuclear weapons to begin with it is not interested in encouraging North Korea to surrender them in a deal with the Americans.

From Beijing’s perspective, North Korea is China’s backyard, not a place where it can tolerate the US or an American-led effort to transform it into a state that is not dependent on China for its survival or for breaking its international isolation.

The rest of the world, including the US, need to recognize this reality. They must think more creatively in offering a prospect for North Korea to use this leadership change to find a real alternative to sustaining itself by nuclear blackmailing or descending into a de facto modern vassal state of China.

Professor Steve Tsang is the director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.

A US overture now may find welcome in Pyongyang

Steve Tsang says Washington should certainly try, given the benefits of success. Published in the South China Morning Post, 23 December 2011.

As an unpredictable nuclear power thrashes out a succession strategy for life after Kim Jong-il, the international community grows nervous. But the United  States and its allies have a rare opportunity to present North Korea with an alternative to the selfdestructive status quo.

How the formation of a new regime will play out is a matter of wild  speculation. The political system allows tremendous scope for a few individuals holding strategic positions in the Worker’s Party of Korea and the National Defence Commission to take decisions that have major ramifications. Whether Kim’s anointed successor, his youngest son Kim Jong-un, will be able to assert his authority, and for how long, remains to be seen.

There is no guarantee that the man Kim Jong-il appointed to safeguard a smooth succession for his son will do as Kim had intended. Jang Song-thaek, deputy head of the National Defence Commission, the highest organ of power, may be Kim Jong-il’s brother-in-law and thechosen “regent”, but he is now in a position to play his own game.

Dynastic succession at a time when the country has long suffered great privations is not popular. Whether Kim Jong-un will be able to consolidate his leadership depends in part on how he manages relations with the other major power holders.

The US can do nothing to shape the actions of young Kim but there is considerable scope for it to influence internal debates among the leaders in Pyongyang.

Once North Korea has agreed on immediate arrangements for the formal succession, it has two clearcut options in deciding the country’s future direction. Status quo of a kind must be the default option. However, it is unlikely to be sustainable unless Kim Jong-un can secure the loyalty of powerful men several decades older in a culture that still reveres age, seniority and experience. He may also need an exceptionally mild winter and a very supportive China to avoid worsening famine.

The obvious alternative is for North Korea to follow China’s path and introduce reforms to rejuvenate the economy without placing the party’s monopoly of power at risk. Beijing will be on hand to help, since it has long been its policy to encourage North Korea to adopt its development model.

Yet an overdependence on China carries serious risks for North Korea. Since the collapse in 2009 of the six-party talks geared towards Korean disarmament, bilateral trade between China and North Korea has soared.

But China’s growing assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region is as unsettling to North Korea as it is to its other neighbours. North Korean unease revolves around China’s historical claim to the ancient kingdom of Koguryo, which covers most of present-day

North Korea and extends well into Chinese territory. North Korea understandably fears that a territorial claim could be used as a bargaining chip by China in return for the provision of continued economic and political support.

The US must ensure that the North Korean leadership is aware of a third option: to trade its nuclear weapons programme for Americanled support for the adoption of a modified Chinese model. This will involve going way beyond the resumption of the six-party talks, though the reopening of talks could act as the first concrete step.

There is no need for the US to exclude China in its efforts. Indeed, Chinese support and participation should be welcomed. By including the Chinese, the US will reassure the North Koreans that considering this option reduces their near-exclusive dependence on China without requiring them to forsake Chinese support and goodwill.

The dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme will have to be a carefully calibrated process. The level of mistrust on all sides is too great for a swift breakthrough. But the offer of a peace treaty and support for reform in return for a UN programme to suspend North Korea’s uranium enrichment ambitions should at least be made.

It may or may not have the desired impact. But making this option available may alter the course of the debates inside Pyongyang. It is a bet worth making.

Professor Steve Tsang is the director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.

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