China shouldn’t leave Kim Jong-un alone
Tensions are running high on the Korean Peninsula, and instability is coming if it’s not already there. North Korea is declaring that truces no longer apply, claiming that the UN is faking its report on North Korean human rights abuses and threatening “thermonuclear war” against its aggressors.
I was in China last week, where I met with senior Chinese foreign policy officials who told me they don’t have the influence over North Korea they once had. There’s a self-promotional reason to say the situation is increasingly out of their hands – it insulates them from pressure to play a leading role in punishing miscreant North Korean behavior. But I think we should start to believe them. Thus far, the normal Chinese channels have not worked. The officials told me that China has resorted to unofficial contacts – through business leaders, informal contacts, etc. – to try to pass on the word to Pyongyang. Mao Zedong famously once called China and North Korea’s relationship as “close as lips and teeth.” Today, when it comes to private bilateral communication, it seems Pyongyang’s lips are sealed, and China’s teeth are grinding.
How, then, do you solve a problem like Dear Leader? There are some within China asking whether the Chinese should break off contact altogether. A senior Communist Party official claimed that delegates discussed whether to “keep or dump” North Korea at the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in early March. In a Financial Times piece entitled “China Should Abandon North Korea,” the deputy editor of the journal of the Central Party School of the Communist Party argued that the China-North Korea alliance was “outdated” and that “nuclear blackmail” from Pyongyang in the future couldn’t be ruled out. The silent treatment would be a last-ditch attempt to get North Korea’s attention by calling its bluff.
Rest assured, silence from China would prove painful for North Korea. Since the early 1990s, China has provided an estimated 90+ percent of North Korea’s energy imports. Some estimates claim China provides 80 percent of the country’s consumer goods and 45 percent of its food. Beijing seems to have the power to unravel the North Korean economy.
But China, which recently supported a UN sanction against North Korea, has little to gain from that instability, and breaking off contact altogether would likely only exacerbate it. North Korea’s behavior is already driving South Korea and Japan into deeper ties with the United States. Its stance draws attention to just how little control China has over its most desperate neighbor. And, of course, it brings the threat of nuclear war to within 500 miles of China’s capital.
It took Kim Jong-il six years as supreme leader before he made his first visit to China. So perhaps Kim Jong-un is also biding his time before firming relations and reestablishing dialogue. It’s not clear we have time for a drawn-out process. Kim Jong-un clearly feels like he’s been wronged by the United States, and he’s choosing to show it by acting like a petulant child, hoping his behavior could lead to direct negotiations or aid. But it’s not likely to get him what he wants.
Trying to determine what will work is similarly fruitless. The key variable is the health of the regime internally. Is Kim Jong-un’s behavior an indication of instability at home? The internal power dynamics in North Korea are exceedingly difficult to analyze, so North Korea’s enemies are perhaps best served by going along with the status quo. For the United States and South Korea, that means continuing with military drills in case North Korea does decide to strike. For China, that means not cutting off its remaining contact with North Korea; it’s crucial China instead try to build robust communication channels to prevent Kim Jong-un from backing himself too far into a corner. That doesn’t mean China can’t agree to UN sanctions in response to North Korea’s provocative behavior (after all, how dogmatically China enforces them is the real story). In fact, accepting sanctions while downplaying their importance might be China’s way of playing a mediating role between North Korea and the West – and stabilizing the situation.
If Kim Jong-un does end up cornered, it could prove exceedingly dangerous. Imagine a scenario in which his regime is imploding. Realizing the jig is up, he resorts to behavior wildly more erratic than the type he’s displaying now. With no China, he has nowhere to flee, and so he decides to spark an international crisis rather than go quietly. That’s a disaster China is best able to help prevent…even if it’s not as able as it used to be. There’s no clear solution for dismantling the North Korean regime and its nuclear arsenal. But trying to find a solution is a dramatically better bet than neglecting North Korea, inviting havoc to crash down, and on Kim Jong-un’s terms, in what could prove an unpredictable (and horrific) blaze of glory.
This essay is based on a transcribed phone interview with Bremmer.
PHOTO: North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) uses a pair of binoculars to look towards the South during his visit to the Jangjae Islet Defence Detachment and Mu Islet Hero Defence Detachment on the front, near the border with South Korea, southwest of Pyongyang March 7, 2013 in this picture released by the North’s official KCNA news agency in Pyongyang March 8, 2013. REUTERS/KCNA