November 2008 Dispatch - North Korean Succession: China's Interests, China's Leverage, and U.S.-ROK Alliance Considerations

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s apparent stroke in mid-August raises the possibility of near-term political succession in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea). This has prompted U.S. and Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea) planners—concerned with command and control of North Korea’s fissile material under conditions of regime disarray, internecine conflict, or collapse—to examine afresh the alliance’s assumptions, contingency plans, and political strategies.

The Korean Peninsula occupies a central place in the Chinese national security calculus. Chinese policy above all aims to avert military conflict on the Peninsula and regime collapse in the North. Conflict and collapse scenarios could embroil China in unwanted military action, imperil its long-term economic development program, jeopardize its crucial ties with the United States and South Korea, open the floodgates to North Korean refugees, and alter the Northeast Asian strategic landscape to China’s disadvantage.

For these and other reasons, China has emphasized the need for a peaceful, negotiated resolution of the problem posed by North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. It has encouraged North Korea to emulate, to the extent feasible, China’s own post-1978 economic reforms. At the same time, China has deepened political and commercial ties with South Korea, and sustained the North Korean regime through generous economic and military assistance.

China’s core interests—plus its special ties with North Korea’s military, party, security, and economic elite—have persuaded many outside observers that Beijing possesses not only unique insights into the Pyongyang regime’s internal dynamics but also potential leverage. Further, many assume that China, having both the need and ability to influence North Korea’s political succession, will do precisely that—shape, or if necessary impose, a North Korean succession that accords with China’s policy interests.
China has consistently denied having superior knowledge and usable leverage, and has adamantly rebuffed speculation regarding its national ambitions and potential actions.

Such disclaimers notwithstanding, some in the ROK and the United States postulate that national and alliance interests might best be served by “coordinating” with China on North Korean regime change/collapse scenarios. A few even argue that the alliance should “subcontract” this issue to China, thereby tacitly acquiescing in its intervention to ensure a peaceful, stable transition.

Despite the high stakes, crucial U.S.-ROK contingency planning seemingly has been approached in an environment that is rich in conjecture and hope, and poor in hard intelligence and agreed assessments.
Yet it is possible—indeed imperative—to do better than this. With respect to one small part of the complex whole—China’s interests, potential leverage, and likely actions—a starting point for rigorous
analysis might include the following issues and questions:

Knowledge : Does China in fact enjoy superior knowledge of internal DPRK decision-making? What are the sources of and limits upon such knowledge? How have the North Koreans approachedspecial bilateral ties with the Chinese in the realms of party-to-party affairs and military cooperation?
Are there reasons to believe that China contributed to North Korea’s nuclear program? If not, are there reasons to believe that North Korea shared any knowledge whatsoever of its activities with China? Has China sought to cultivate North Korean officials and, if so, when, and how successfully?  How has North Korea reacted to any such Chinese activities?

Leverage: How much leverage does China enjoy over North Korean political, military, and economic decisions? What are the sources of such leverage? What are the constraints? How should one assess North Korea’s likely response to Chinese pressure? What options does North Korea enjoy in deflecting such pressure?

A Proactive Approach by China to North Korean Political Succession : What posture is China likely to adopt toward political succession in North Korea? What are its policy options? What assets does it hold? How does the issue of North Korean succession—including the possibility of regime chaos or collapse—fit into China’s broad strategic posture? What external considerations (especially those involving the ROK, the United States, Japan, and Russia) must China take into account?

ROK and U.S. Policy Considerations Regarding China’s Potential Involvement in a North Korean • Political Succession: What essential posture should the ROK and the United States adopt? On the one hand, should they enlist China’s cooperation in “managing” political succession in North Korea, or endeavor to minimize that involvement, instead addressing North Korean succession scenarios as primarily a task for the U.S.-ROK alliance? On the other hand, should they accept (and even tacitly encourage) China’s superior ability to effect a stable succession that preserves peace and stability? Should they broaden the scope of the current six-party talks to include formal discussion among “the five” (excepting North Korea)? Or should some other approach be adopted?

On one level, U.S. and ROK planners must urgently address these issues in order to have confidence that the two allies can deal smoothly with any North Korean political succession scenario. On a deeper level, a rigorous bilateral analysis of this type can serve to strengthen the U.S.-ROK alliance itself by fully illuminating a broader set of underlying national attitudes, interests, and priorities.