Opinion

Ian Bremmer

China shouldn’t leave Kim Jong-un alone

Ian Bremmer
Mar 13, 2013 16:18 UTC

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of the journal of the Central Party School of the Communist Party argued that the China-North Korea alliance was “outdated” and that “nuclear blackmail” from Pyongyang in the future couldn’t be ruled out.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.

The top 10 grudges in the G-20

Ian Bremmer
Mar 7, 2013 20:14 UTC

The G-20 is no happy family. Comprised of 19 countries and the European Union, once the urgency of the financial crisis waned, so too did the level of collaboration among members. Unlike the cozier G-7 — filled with likeminded nations — the G-20 is a better representation of the true global balance of power … and the tensions therein. So where are the deepest fault lines in the G-20? 

Below is a ranking* of the 10 worst bilateral relationships in the G20. Russia is in four of the worst, while China is in three (although Russia and China’s relationship is fine). Several countries are also in two of the worst relationships: the United States (with the two belligerents mentioned above), Japan, the UK and the EU. 

1.   China–Japan

China and Japan have a historically troubled relationship, which has reached its most contentious point in decades as their dispute over territorial claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands has escalated, leading to renewed geopolitical tensions and possible confrontation. When the world’s second- and third-largest economies are butting heads, it carries huge global ramifications.

The hope and beauty of a North Korean stalemate

Ian Bremmer
Mar 30, 2012 15:40 UTC

President Obama’s recent trip to South Korea may have gained attention for his “open mic” slipup with outgoing Russian President Medvedev over missile defense, but that’s just a media distraction from the importance of Obama’s visit to the Korean peninsula. After Kim Jong Il’s death in December, the U.S. took an early lead in negotiations with North Korea doing so because Obama and his team thought it could be an easy diplomatic win. With the promise of aid and food, the U.S. could let new leader Kim Jong-un quietly drop the consistently belligerent stance the country has taken in what passes for its foreign policy.

It’s now clear that easy win is not going to happen. Despite Kim’s titular status, we still don’t really know who is in charge in North Korea. While there have been no major coups, protests, or blowups, there have been plenty of smaller events, like military executions due to insubordination, that point to a high likelihood of purges happening in the regime. Now factor in that North Korea has gotten decidedly more, rather than less, militant on the nuclear arms front. Its announcement of a satellite test is a thinly veiled attempt to launch a long-range ICBM. The global community is perceiving it as such with South Korea threatening to shoot the missile down. The vitriol coming out of the North Korean propaganda machine is as hardline and aggressive as we’ve seen in many years.

Several months into the Kim Jong-un regime, there’s little cause for optimism. There’s much cause to be on heightened alert, though, because other than belligerent press releases, the new regime has not shown any ability to deliver on its promises. The South Koreans recently held live-fire exercises on five islands near the disputed Yellow Sea boundary with North Korea; their angry neighbors, despite loudly promising a response, did nothing. As much as we can be glad there was no international incident as a result, it’s not a good sign if the reason the North Koreans didn’t follow through on their threats was that the Kim Jong-un regime was unable to control the military well enough to direct it to do so. The regime change, in other words, has not yet stabilized.

Fallout is just beginning in North Korea

Ian Bremmer
Dec 21, 2011 17:31 UTC

By Ian Bremmer
The opinions expressed are his own.

There are many surprising things about Kim Jong-il’s sudden death, not the least of which is that it took two days for the rest of the world to hear about it. Yet most surprising is the sanguine reaction of the global and especially the Asian markets. On Monday, or actually Sunday as we now know, the world woke up to its first leaderless nuclear power. Coming as close as anyone could to filling his seat was his youngest son, who is in his late twenties. There’s no way these facts were accurately priced into markets that took just a relatively minor dip as a first response. The news from North Korea appears to have been taken far too lightly, and just a few days out, it’s disappearing from the front pages.

While Kim Jong-un’s status as heir apparent seems to tie a nice bow around the situation, let’s get real for a moment. The son of the elder Kim only appeared on the North Korean stage after a stroke necessitated succession planning in Kim Jong-il’s regime in 2008. Consider that founder of the country Kim Il-sung put his son, Kim Jong-il, in front of the citizenry as his heir for more than a decade before his 1994 death. That decade was precious time; time Kim Jong-il spent consolidating power and putting his own people into high government office— and he was over 50 years old when his father passed away. Kim Jong-un has been deprived of that head start; he’s got to rely on whatever ground his dead father managed to clear for him since his 2008 stroke. A couple of years at his father’s side — and a promotion to four star general — is scant time for the younger Kim to have developed a real plan for ruling, or real allies in government.

That said, don’t expect Kim Jong-un to be deposed. There won’t be a North Korean spring — for real or for show — anytime soon. The country is too backward and too brainwashed to mount any sort of populist opposition to the ruling regime, and its people have little if any knowledge of the outside world. Even if Kim Jong-un proves unable to consolidate and retain power, all that would replace him as the head of state is a military junta or strongman; there’s no democracy on the horizon, given the country’s current sorry state of affairs.

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